By Lori Perkins
I was honestly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s film a clef about his childhood/teen years and the influences that led him to be the filmmaker he has become. And while I was entertained by the embellished storytelling around his early films and influential meeting with director John Ford (played perfectly by legendary director David Lynch himself), what stayed with me the most was the amazingly honest and emotional depiction of his family coming apart as he (and we) learn of his mother’s affair with his father’s “best friend.” In my experience, that kind of story is more often told in a literary novel, and usually “explains” why the author is the way s/he is, usually someone who is emotionally damaged/broken with the novel unraveling the story of their repair through the salvation of “art.” Spielberg did not do this in The Fablemans.
In The Fablemans 16 year-old Sam discovers that his mother is having an affair with the family friend Ben because he has been filming a family camping trip and captures their unmistakably romantic gestures on film. We see him realize it, and live with it, and how he finally shows his mother that he knows her secret, that not only has been causing her emotional trauma, but him as well. This part of the story is threaded through his life as the family moves from Arizona to California and through Sam’s experiences in a new high school. It is this underlying thread that we know could unravel everything, but doesn’t. It becomes part of the story, but not THE story.
The way this affair was handled in the movie was so thought-provoking that it made me look up whether or not this was true, and I was a little shocked to learn that it was. Speilberg’s mother married her husband’s friend and he reconciled with both his father and his mother. I would have thought this would have been part of the Spielberg mythology, but I had never heard about it before. I would have thought divorced parents would have been a recurring theme in the Spielberg mythos, and I’m kind of glad it’s not.
I imagine that this part of the story will resonate in ways I can’t foresee for generations to come, just as Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale did for my own son when our family fractured. Except, unlike The Squid and the Whale, The Fablemans is not a story of the impact of divorce, but the drive of creativity even in the midst of chaos.