Steven Spielberg has spent his entire career channeling the sadness of his childhood into movies. He never really hesitated to admit so much, publicly confessing the autobiographical elements intertwined with sensitive sensations like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, catch me if you canand especially his 40 year old now ET The Alien, an all-age, all-time smash that welcomed the world into the melancholy of its broken home through the friendship between a sad, lonely child and a new friend of the stars. By now, all that baggage is inextricably linked to the mythology of Hollywood’s best-loved hitmaker: It’s conventional wisdom that Spielberg’s knack for replicating the awe and fear of childhood stems from the way his own weight has continued to weigh more than a decade ago. half a century later, on his heart and mind.
With his new coming-of-age drama the fables, Spielberg drops everything except the slightest semblance of artificial distance between his work and those experiences. Co-written with Tony Kushner, the great playwright who penned the script for some of the director’s recent forays into the American past (including the luminescent West Side Story), the film tells the very lightly fictionalized story of an idealistic boy from a Jewish family, who grows up in the American Southwest, falls in love with the cinema while his parents no longer fall in love with each other. Every scene of the film feels plucked from the nickel odeon of Spielberg’s memories. It is the memoir on the big screen as a twinkling tragic spectacle of therapeutic exorcism.
From the early 1950s to the late 1960s, the fables dramatizes almost his filmmaker’s entire adolescence – starting, of course, with what may be his first memory of going to the movies, a formative take on The greatest show on earth. Terrified by the film’s images of a train violently derailing, young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) eventually recreates the scene with his own model locomotive, destroying it to allay his lingering fear. “He’s trying to kind of control it,” his mother, former pianist Mitzi (Michelle Williams), explains to his father, computer engineer Burt (the batter‘s Paul Dano) — a line that pretty much describes the intentions of the fables yourself.
Spielberg will follow Sammy and the rest of the Fabelmans family, including the boy’s two younger sisters, from New Jersey to the suburbs of Phoenix to California, and through more than a decade of domestic conflict. The drama alternates between two often intersecting tracks. We see how Sammy slowly develops as a budding filmmaker and learns the tricks of the trade through increasingly elaborate amateur productions (including a western and the legendary 40-minute war film from his youth, Escape out of nowhere). At the same time, the child watches from the sidelines as his parents grow apart. Much of the tension between them stems from the presence of a third figure in their marriage: Burt’s colleague and close family friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), whose relationship with Mitzi is clearly more than just strictly platonic.
so much of the fables seems drawn from direct memories, Spielberg lingers on details too specific to be invented. The wrinkling of a paper tablecloth, the soft pulse on the neck of Sammy’s dying grandmother, the tough love wisdom of Sammy’s uncle (Judd Hirsch, who almost steals the movie in one great scene) – these are moments from time immortalized in the glow of Janusz Kamiński’s quintessentially heavenly cinematography. The plotting has an episodic quality; Kushner and Spielberg string together snapshots of mid-century detail for the drama of alternately heart-wrenching and juicy effect. Possibly, the fables slides into high school, with Sammy (now played by Gabriel LaBelle, in a gorgeous breakout performance) confronting anti-Semitism in 1960s California and courting a beautiful Catholic classmate (Chloe East).
For all the enthusiasm he’s brought to Spielberg’s work over the past decade, Kushner can’t hide the film’s therapeutic intent, which sometimes seeps into the dialogue and certain groundbreaking conversations. It often feels like characters are speaking out loud the essential truths of Spielberg’s life, or perhaps saying the things he would have liked to say to understand all this sooner. Do we see how he really remembers those moments, or is this the savvy mainstream storyteller in him grabbing the wheel and underlining his big ideas for the cheap seats? the fables opens with perhaps the most transparent thematic scene, as Burt explains to his child the phenomenon of vision persistence, while Mitzi simply tells him that “movies are dreams.” We are meant to understand Sammy (and by extension, Spielberg) as a product of both adults. Her sense of magic and his pragmatism combined to make the legend’s audience-friendly director.
the fables is touching, but it’s not the big heartthrob you’d want or expect. Sometimes it feels as immersive as a snow globe. Spielberg has shrouded his memories in such a thick layer of reverence, as the mosquito caught in amber Jurassic Park, that we can’t exactly step into it, only look amazed from a distance. The irony is that closer to these real events it may have diminished somehow U.S proximity to them. the fables is clearly Spielberg’s most personal film – it’s his story, barely embellished – but it doesn’t draw us into his emotions like the less literal ET did.
Nevertheless, the film grows up with Sammy, who generally becomes more nuanced and vulnerable as it progresses. It is at its best and most terrifying when you examine the relationship between Spielberg’s parents. Williams and Dano deliver an indelible study in contrast to the parents, helping us (and perhaps the director) to understand the cracks of incompatibility between their characters. These scenes are, poignantly, at a crossroads of perspective, somehow managing to simultaneously suggest a boy’s raw reaction to his parents’ impending divorce and the wisdom about it that can only be gained in hindsight. are provided. There’s a truly incredible sequence where Sammy finds out what’s going on between his mom and Bennie by watching footage from a recent camping trip and studying the emotional whims of the people in the frames. It’s both a personal and an artistic discovery: movies can tell the truth and sometimes tell more than you want to know.
Towards the end, when Spielberg works towards meeting a childhood hero (a very funny cameo that feels a bit like he belongs to another movie) and succumbs to the familiar urge to cheer, the fables has taken on the romantic scale of an origin story: this, we are finally told, is what made the man behind it jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark and a host of other cinematic flags planted in the pop culture imagination. What lingers, though, is the sense that the messy emotions of an upbringing have been crushed into a new ode to the power of movies: the personal artistic awakening of one man turned into a plywood tearjerker, as bright yet diffused as the light it gives us. suggests .
the fables opens in select theaters November 11. Our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival continues throughout the week. For more work by AA Dowd, visit his Authors page.