by Rob DiCristino
“We’re junkies,” growls Boris Schildkraut (Judd Hirsch), a gregarious bear of a Jewish uncle, as he pins young Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) to a wall in his room. “Art is our drug.” Try as the younger man might to deny it — and sore as his cheeks may be from Boris’ overzealous pinching — Boris is right. Sammy is addicted to the movies. The movies give him focus. They give him control. They give him a voice when his words fail him, balance when the world around him collapses into untenable madness. Like his mother (Michelle Williams as Mitzi), Sammy is an artist. But that art, Boris assures his nephew, will eventually destroy him. It will alienate him from his peers and shatter the fragile domestic equilibrium that Mitzi and Burt (Paul Dano as the Fabelman patriarch) have worked so hard to maintain. Most cataclysmic of all, his art will show him the truth. The truth of his uptight father’s expectations. The truth of the bullies who taunt him at school. The truth of the heartbreaking darkness that haunts his mother’s soul.
The Fabelmans is a dream. It’s the Tragedy of the Spielbergs told through the oldest son’s rose-tinted recollections, a not-quite-true story made up of vignettes chronicling his journey from eight-millimeter hobbyist to Hollywood whiz kid. The Beard’s most formative moments are all here: Seeing The Greatest Show on Earth for the very first time. Moving west to California as his father’s engineering genius breeds opportunities with RCA and IBM. Making cowboy pictures with his Eagle Scout troop mates. Dropping out of college to pursue an entry-level position on an honest-to-god studio backlot. But it’s not long into The Fabelmans before we realize that the Spielberg lore is all just window dressing for a family drama that treats these moments less like carefully-crafted bursts of inspiration and more like desperate attempts to dam a raging river of repression and loss. Sammy cannot live in the world unless he’s shooting it; he cannot help but find the drama in the frame. He must center it. Exploit it. Even if it kills him.