Movies and TV shows have always romanticized the dreamer. How many stories have you watched about trailblazing figures who dared to dream big?
Dreams can be a blessing or a curse because of the thin line between a dream and an obsession. It’s the difference between pursuing your bliss or chasing the dragon.
Steven Spielberg knows a thing or two about dreams and obsession. This filmmaking legend’s greatest tool is his unbridled vision. He’s a dream merchant who manifests the impossible on screen.
Spielberg owns a permanent spot in the greatest director of all time conversation because he dreams big and pursues his obsessions.
His latest feature, the semi-autobiographical The Fabelmans, is a fictional retelling of his childhood. It’s a coming-of-age story about a boy falling in love with movies while his home life deteriorates.
This origin story begins in 1952 and follows five-year-old Spielberg stand-in Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord). We meet Sammy on the night his parents, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano) take him to his first movie.
Taking a skittish child like Sammy to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth wasn’t a smart choice. A horrific train crash sequence blows Sammy’s little mind and leaves him traumatized.
Unable to get the violence out of his head, Sammy replays the scene using his toy train set. He discovers that using his dad’s camera to film the wreck gives him a feeling of control over his trauma. The revelation sparks an obsession with movies that changes him forever.
The film jump’s ahead a decade as we watch teenage Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) forced to grow up fast. His home life may look like an episode of Leave It to Beaver, but something is off between his parents. Mitzi craves attention, especially from Sammy’s favourite uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen). And Burt appears all too happy to bury himself in his work. As tensions erupt within the family, Sammy uses filmmaking to understand the changing world around him.
Spielberg made a career out of working through his emotional baggage on screen. He returns to stories about broken families and children in peril as a way of healing his own emotional wounds. We literally see this process depicted in the film when Sammy makes a trainwreck movie to tame his anxiety.
While Spielberg explores his signature themes in The Fabelmans, it’s the first time he’s tackled his upbringing so literally. This is the story he’s been building toward his whole career and also his most personal.
There are a couple of major tensions at play in the movie. The first one deals with how Spielberg processed his parents’ divorce. I won’t get too spoilery, but Spielberg spent much of his life resenting his father for ruining their family. Years later, he learned his father’s decision to walk away wasn’t as selfish as it first appeared. (For a thorough look at Spielberg’s complicated relationship with his parents, check out Susan Lacy’s 2017 documentary Spielberg).
The Fabelmans is the director’s attempt to reconcile how he now sees his family with the pain and resentment he felt growing up. This comes through loud and clear in his characterizations of Burt and Mitzi.
Mitzi is a chaos agent who represents passion and obsession. Early on in the movie, Mitzi loads her young kids into the family car and maniacally drives through a storm to get a close-up look at a tornado.
Burt is an actual genius. He’s a computer engineer who dreams up ground-breaking concepts. He appears aloof, but still waters run deep. He loves with all his heart but doesn’t make a show of his feelings.
Spielberg possesses personality traits from both characters. Directors require an artist’s fire and passion and an engineer’s cold and methodical attention to detail.
The Fabelmans also gets into the price dreamers must pay for chasing their passion.
Throughout the film, Sammy must choose between family and filmmaking – it’s an easy choice every time. He may live with his parents and siblings, but he’s not wired like them. So, even when the family is together camping in the woods, he’s not present. He’s off in his own universe, camera in hand, separated by glass, celluloid, and ambition.
Sammy can’t exist in the moment if he’s always the one orchestrating it. Every minute spent making movies is a minute not spent with loved ones. Dreamers willingly pay this price because they’re driven by their obsession. The Fabelmans feels like the 75 year old director wistfully coming to terms with choosing his ambitions over his family.
If you find Spielberg’s filmmaking style cloying, rest assured, nothing in The Fabelmans will change your mind. It’s as sweet, and unapologetically sentimental as a Spielberg film can be.
If you’re a cinephile or a Spielberg fan, then The Fabelmans is a must-see movie. It works as an earnest memoir and heartfelt love letter to filmmaking. But above all, the film offers a revealing window into the mind of a legend. The Fabelmans thoughtfully showcases the delicate balance between chasing a dream and succumbing to obsession.