Whenever a filmmaker makes a work that is itself centered on films, it is often described as being a "love letter to cinema" or, even more simplistically, a tribute to the "magic of the movies." With Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans, it's easy to see why it could be forced into such descriptors at first glance. Telling an explicitly autobiographical story where we get to see a young version of Spielberg himself, Gabriel LaBelle's Sammy, discover creative ways to make movies with his buddies is joyous. But pigeonholing The Fabelmans' more expansive emotional experience into sweet and sentimental pull quotes would do a disservice to a film that is so much more than that. While there is a degree of fun that Spielberg has in winking at the audience as he goes down memory lane, a somberness sneaks up on both us as the audience and young Sammy.
For all the ways that the veteran filmmaker would become known to audiences for iconic classics like Jaws, Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park, when we first see the budding talent beginning to understand how to use cinema to communicate a story it is for an audience of one. Specifically, it is his mother, Mitzi, played here by a mesmerizing Michelle Williams, who Sammy takes aside to show her what he has been working on. He does so not in a cinema but in the confines of a tiny closet with a small projector's whirring providing the sole sound through his silent movie that is as much an accusation as it is an expression of pain. Though initially excited to see Sammy's home movie of a recent family vacation, Mitzi's face soon falls into sadness as she understands what it is that is troubling her son. It is one of many ways that the film takes rose-colored recollections and injects them with a sorrow, looking back frankly at the unhappiness that can be at the core of childhood.
Excavating these memories from growing up in the '50s and '60s sees Spielberg grappling with what has been present in many of his films. Even in enduring stories like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. that are most centrally works of science fiction, there has always been a sense that he was drawing from what he knew from his own childhood. With eye for openness and honesty, Spielberg primarily focuses this film on how Mitzi and Sammy's father, Burt (played by an understated Paul Dano), are drifting apart. It is done in a way that doesn't mask the hurt he felt, but is also overflowing with a clear amount of love for each parent. While a good deal of humor is found in seeing the specifics of his family — including a scene-stealing appearance by Judd Hirsch as the visiting Uncle Boris — it is all intercut with a growing disillusionment. It is a coming-of-age story, but it is also a portrait of the people that Spielberg knew better than just about anyone. The way he shares his reflections on them can feel occasionally perfunctory, often eschewing depth to wrap everything up a bit too neatly, while still becoming playfully poetic when it counts.
In particular, the ending succession of scenes does wonders in helping to smooth over any of its prevailing neatness. Without tipping off who it is that appears, as this appearance is best preserved for audiences to experience themselves, it is more than just a throwaway cameo even as it is brief. The way this cinematic titan offers one final piece of wisdom is glorious and mirthful while offering a final glimpse of how much of who Spielberg is can be felt in even the smallest of technical details. It conveys a warmth that is completely earned as a final tilt of a camera becomes one last cinematic look to the horizon. ♦The Fabelmans