This article contains spoilers for The Fabelmans. You can read our spoiler-free review here.
It is not how this type of story is supposed to go. Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), a lad who is also a thinly veiled portrait of Steven Spielberg’s youth, has been bullied, humiliated, and finally assaulted by his high school’s golden boy, Logan Hall (Sam Rechner). The six-foot-plus gorilla never openly made an Antisemitic jape at Sammy’s expense. But when Logan’s buddy Chad (Oakes Fegley) did, Logan stood there and laughed—and later tried to break Sammy’s nose when the smaller kid stood up for himself.
Yet here they were, a few months later and on prom night, sharing something akin to camaraderie. Logan even offers Sam a drag of a joint he just rolled. The 180-degree pivot from animosity surprises the kids, just as it does the audience who expected a revenge of the nerds style of comeuppance. There was even a perfect opportunity just one scene earlier when Sammy revealed his “Senior Skip Day” short film at the prom. Surely, this would be the scenario where Sam could get back at the physically bigger bullies by depicting them as buffoons. In a locker room they might be big men, but in the editing suite, the director’s God.
Yet that’s not the type of movie Sammy wanted to make. In retrospect that perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise either. Spielberg came of age during the same period as a lot of the filmmakers behind ‘70s and ‘80s high school revenge fantasies, but that was never the instinct of an eternal onscreen optimist like Spielberg. And it also does not become Sammy’s choice—at least not entirely. While the more openly hateful bigot does become the butt of the joke in the short film, Logan is elevated to the status of a demigod. He looks noble and beatific onscreen, worshiped even as he’s filmed dominating volleyball on the beach and winning a race that has all the stakes of Body and Soul.
Not only does it flatter Logan’s ego, but it captures the imagination of the kids in the dance hall. Future Spielberg contemporary Brian De Palma would make horror history when he adapted Stephen King’s Carrie so masterfully that to this day we crack jokes about pig’s blood at school proms. After all, it’s at such a dance that Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is humiliated by a bucket of livestock blood, causing her to reveal her ominous superpowers to her peers.
In its own way, the prom sequence in The Fabelmans plays the same. Before this sequence, Sammy is at best a curiosity for his WASP-y classmates, including his girlfriend (Chloe East), who is as enamored with the forbidden fruit of Sammy’s religion as she is the funny kid always holding a camera. But when the class sees one of his films, they at last see him. Filmmaking, at least according to Spielberg, who co-wrote The Fabelmans with Tony-winner Tony Kushner, is his superpower. And while the other kids are not horrified by that gift like Carrie White’s classmates, they’re nevertheless thunderstruck by it. Shock or awe, it looks the same on a big screen.
This includes Logan, who cannot reconcile the images he saw of himself coming out of the projector. The man he watched onscreen was perfect, divine, even innately good. Hell, he was a bigger all-American hero than the sometimes caddish Indiana Jones. That isn’t the real Logan though. The audience knows this; Sammy knows this; and even the jock knows it. Nonetheless, it’s such a seductive image that the girlfriend Logan cheated on takes him back after seeing that he-man up there in the flickering light.
“That’s not me!” he later laments in a fury to Sam. It’s a lie! He doesn’t understand why the put-upon Jewish kid would give him this monkey-pawed slice of hagiography, and to be honest Sam is also not entirely sure. “Maybe I did it to make the movie better?” Sam finally offers.
It certainly makes The Fabelmans better. For here we get a keyhole-sized peek into what Spielberg sees when he looks back at us.
As one of the most consequential filmmakers of all-time, Spielberg’s fatherly demeanor and mild-mannered good humor are as famed as his household name. This image was not achieved by accident. During the 1980s, Spielberg successfully turned his persona into something as synonymous with all-ages family entertainment as Disney. There are countless behind-the-scenes stories about how he pursued that too, such as when he pulled out of producing Hocus Pocus because he didn’t want to be in bed with Disney… he wanted his Amblin Entertainment to rival the house that Walt built.
Over the last 20 or so years, Spielberg has pared back those commercial interests, particularly as a director who’s mostly preferred historical dramas and parables which have allowed him to enter into a kind of dialogue with the American mainstream’s collective conscience. But he still executive produces Jurassic World movies, and Transformers too. He is still a showman whose self-deprecating friendliness belies a talent so self-aware of its gifts that it’s maintained a perch at the top of American culture in five different decades.
We’ve seen him always smile and take the flattery when just about every human being below the age of 50 gushes in his presence that they grew up on his movies and they mean so much. And frankly, that’s a lovelier reaction than how Spielberg humorously depicts his own idol John Ford (played by a fantastic David Lynch) reacting to that time Steven was the young one rambling about his love for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Still, one of the most fascinating things about The Fabelmans is it allows us to look back at those kinds of interactions in an adolescent microcosm.
Why did Sammy glorify Logan before the whole class? I believe him when he says he isn’t entirely sure. But he knows one thing: He needs to leave the gym when all of his peers suddenly stare at his film, and at Sam, with bewildered amazement. Such idolatry feels disconnected from reality, much as Logan’s reaction to the short film and Sammy becomes mystifying. Here is a jock who laughed when his buddy said Sammy killed Christ and threatened to truly hurt Sam if the kid crossed him again. And now Logan’s so grateful and ashamed after witnessing Sam’s cinematic grandeur that he’ll befriend the Fabelman lad and also protect him from his own vicious pal, Chad. The rebuffed Anti-Semite whines that Logan has fallen for a “snow job,” and I’m not sure Sam would disagree.
While Logan is smart enough to know that the movie is a lie, he is still bewitched by how powerful and beautiful that lie is. It even got him the girl. Sammy is similarly in awe, not of his film, but of the effect it has on these kids. It’s just a movie for Sammy, a passion, yes, but a movie. It’s a project he likes to craft in his spare time with no more reality to it than the Mummy films he made with his sisters as a child or the war picture he shot with boy scouts in the Arizona desert.
Sam perhaps hoped to earn his classmates’ admiration, but the dumbfounded and even reverential response after the fact looks… strange. Silly, even. Sam seemed very ready to be attacked by Chad after the movie played; he had no way of anticipating that Logan would become his protector or would suffer an identity crisis over something that’s just a story—a little fairy dust that could never fix the real problems in Sammy’s life, like his parents’ divorce.
Those kids’ astonishment is a metaphor for how Spielberg sees us when we stare up in slack-jawed amazement, not unlike many of his protagonists upon the sight of a close encounter with the third kind or a dinosaur walking by a jeep. Those singularly Spielbergian images, where characters fumble while taking off their sunglasses to bear witness to epic majesty, is not that different from how many of us act in the audience while watching a Spielberg movie.
Sam is ultimately bemused by the power his illusions cast, and how binding his spells will always be.
Whether this is the real Spielberg is of course difficult to fully assess. By simply naming his protagonists “the Fabelmans” instead of “the Spielbergs,” the director gives his semi-autobiography artistic license and artistic distance. Even so, it is fair to suspect this is at least how Spielberg would like to view himself, and how he views his interactions with an adoring public… including people he may have nothing in common with other than an appreciation for the illusion.
As of press time, I’ve not read an interview where Spielberg confirms if this anecdote in The Fabelmans is based on his own actual teenage experiences. I’d like to think so, even if his and Kushner’s dialogue is too perfect when, upon being told by Logan to never tell anyone else about his breakdown, Sammy says, “I won’t… unless I put it in a film one day.”
That line is pure movie magic. And you know what? I don’t want to know if it’s fact or fiction. The spell is too good.
The Fabelmans is playing in theaters now.