Friday, November 18, 2022

“The Fabelmans”: Close Encounters with the Spielberg Family

Over the years, I’ve had many lunches at the Milky Way, a dairy café on an ethnic stretch of Pico Blvd. in West Los Angeles. Its proprietor was, until her death at age  97, a pixie of a woman named Leah Adler. She was hard to miss, with her close-cropped blonde hair, her bright red lipstick, and het Peter Pan collars. Until old age caught up with her, she’d literally dance around the restaurant, greeting guests warmly, and making sure everyone knew which menu items were preferred by her famous son.

 The movie posters in the lobby, as well as that prominent E.T. doll, told the tale. Leah Adler was the mother of Steven Spielberg, and she wanted the whole world to know it. On one occasion, I even came close to an encounter with the man himself. We’d ordered the cheesecake for dessert, and Leah breathlessly informed us that Steven, seeing it emerge from the kitchen, had declared he was tempted to scoop up a bite with his finger. I looked where she pointed, to an area near the dining room entryway, but could see only the back of a head topped by a baseball cap. So much for star-gazing.

 Anyone aware of this unshakeable mother/son bond would be curious indeed about The Fabelmans, a memory film billed as the true story of Steven’s growing-up years. By the time I saw it, I knew something more of Leah Adler, of her musical aspirations as a young piano student, of her domestic eccentricities, of the painful moment when she broke up the family unit. As played by Michelle Williams in a bravura performance, she’s lively, creative, self-promoting, the acknowledged fairy queen of the household. When, on a family camping trip, she dances in the moonlight in her white nightgown, she wins everyone’s heart. (Mine too!)

 What I knew little about was Spielberg’s engineer father, here called Burt Fabelman, As played by Paul Dano, he’s a brilliant nerd, in love with his wife, his family, and his work on early computer technology. There’s an amiable cluelessness about him that’s a fresh take on movie fatherhood, but at the same time he reminded me of so many screen fathers –-like Chris Cooper in October Sky—who praise their sons’ intellectual drive but can’t accept their chosen professions.

 The young Spielberg clone, Sammy Fabelman, is introduced to movies by both of his parents, with his father focusing on technological achievement and his mother passionately cherishing movies as akin to dreams. When Sam starts to film his own backyard masterpieces, with his little sisters in starring roles, both parents cheer him on. But as he nears adulthood, refining his cinematographic skills and learning to shape the world that surrounds him through the lens of his camera, moviemaking becomes his retreat from the disturbances of everyday life. Ironically it also, in the film’s most crucial episode, becomes his proof of a reality he doesn’t want to face.

 My least favorite part of the film strays from the family story to show a teenage Sam enduring anti-semitic taunting while romancing a girl with a Jesus complex. The outcome of that segment reveals Sam using filmmaking as a quixotic way of handling his oppressors, but the romance—funny though it is—seems a rather cheap way of getting some laughs into the picture. For me the film’s highlight is the visit of Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a rather mysterious circus performer who descends on the family at a time of tragedy. It’s he who explains to  Sam why the artist always has to go it alone.



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