Light spoilers ahead for “The Fabelmans.”
“The Fabelmans,” Steven Spielberg’s uber-personal American Jewish tale nominated for seven Academy Awards, has been described as a story with many themes: coming of age, family secrets and dysfunction, the power of film and the conflict between art and family life.
But from our perspective as a movie-loving Jewish mother and film critic son, “The Fabelmans” stands out for presenting a warmer, more nuanced and less stereotypical Jewish mother-son dynamic than most other films — even those made by Jewish sons.
The real-life relationship between Jewish mothers and sons is often fraught and complicated, easily lending itself to stereotypical portrayals in film and other media. According to Rabbi Michael Beals, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, Del., this dynamic has a biblical precedent. Beals claims that Jewish sons’ desire to obey their mothers and “bring them naches” goes all the way back to Jacob’s relationship with his mother, Rebecca, who instructed him to deceive his father by playing the role of Esau in order to gain Isaac’s blessing and become a leader of the Jewish people.
“Rebecca and Jacob’s mother-son relationship has defined Jewish mother-son relationships through the millennia,” Beals says.
Like Jacob and Rebecca, the son and mother in “The Fabelmans” engage in deception — but in an effort toward familial preservation instead of division. Whether you trace its origins to biblical literature or real life, the relationship between Mitzi and Sammy feels authentic.
Here are seven reasons we believe “The Fabelmans” deserves the top prize in this competitive, age-old category.
1. The movie doesn’t use the “overbearing Jewish mom with a kowtowing, guilt-ridden wimpy son” cliché that is all too common in popular media. Yes, there’s plenty of guilt to go around in “The Fabelmans,” but it’s not so thick you can lay it on with a shovel (like in the semi-autobiographical “The Guilt Trip” from Dan Fogelman — no relation). The film also avoids the head-shakingly tone-deaf mother-son interactions of the TV comedy “The Big Bang Theory.” Instead, the relationship between son Sammy and mother Mitzi is a complicated, multilayered one: They “get” and support each other while not ignoring that some family issues must be addressed, even if they can’t be resolved. And although Mitzi, played by Michelle Williams, is more performer than balaboosta (homemaker), she does radiate her own brand of Jewish-mother warmth.
2. The mother and son are fully dimensional, and the story belongs to both of them. As New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis writes, “Sammy is the focus of the movie, but Mitzi is the soul.” Throughout the movie, Mitzi embodies a force unlike the physical ones Sammy’s engineer dad understands, a more emotionally-driven spirit of the here and now. But as emotions run hot and cold, so too can Mitzi be at once inspirational and flighty, and impulsive in both magical and self-destructive ways (like the odd spectacle of driving a storm for a reason known only to her). Sammy shares the audience’s feelings about her, simultaneously beguiled and bewildered by her chaotic presence in his family’s lives. But their strong connection to each other is evident throughout.
Other movies, like James Gray’s “Armageddon Time, ” feature a Jewish mother who loves but doesn’t understand her artistic son — and, even worse, fails to protect him from his violent father. Or they feature relationships, as in Jesse Eisenberg’s “When You Finish Saving the World,” in which the mother is not only clueless about her son’s desires and sensitivities, but also an obstacle to his happiness.
3. The mother and son have real relationships with other family members. It’s a well-known part of the Spielberg lore that he drafted his sisters into his early home movies. They often didn’t mind being a part of the fun, but the movie also shows the rivalries and conflicts that arose, as when Sammy’s oldest sister accuses him of being just as selfish as their mother. The movie ensures that the Sammy/Mitzi relationship doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that the consequences of mistakes or thoughtlessness echo throughout the family.
4. Jewish identity and observance isn’t relegated to a poorly fitted yarmulke at a bar mitzvah and self-deprecating remarks about Hanukkah versus Christmas. The Fabelmans don’t make a big deal out of their Jewishness, but they don’t play it down, either. They light candles for every night of Hanukkah and eat Shabbat dinners together, complete with kugel, Mitzi’s less-than-tasty brisket and sweet and sour comments from the Jewish grandmothers. And Sammy’s individual connection to his heritage is present but conflicted: He grapples with antisemitic high school bullies and an evangelical girlfriend with a sort of philo-fetishism.
Ultimately, Sammy works through his senior year, lone-Jew difficulties by making a Riefenstahl-like ode to the less odious of his two tormentors, a tall, blond, ubermensch physical type. Later, the star of this beach-party film confronts Sammy in distress about why Sammy portrayed him as the hero, and Sammy can’t say whether his reason was defensive, artistic or neither. But we liked that, in his way, Sammy stood up to antisemitism when he told his former nemesis that, though he wouldn’t tell anybody about their conversation, he would maybe “make a movie about it” someday.
5. The movie and reality collide in a way that is both touching and thoughtful. Although much of the story is about a secret that destroys a family, it’s also a way for Spielberg to reconsider his past through the lens of the present — a world where he blamed his father for his parents’ divorce for most of his life, but also one where his parents became close friends decades later.
Film reviewer Nell Minow, a contributing editor at RogerEbert.com and also a Jewish mother (Minow’s daughter, Rachel Apatoff, worked on some of the costumes for “The Fabelmans”), feels that Spielberg chose the right time to make this movie. “It is very much the story that can only be told when the parties are gone,” says Minow, “and the son has had the chance to accomplish one of life’s most difficult challenges: thinking of his parents as people, not giants, and loving and forgiving them with all of their faults.”
The artistic, passionate Mitzi also blends into the real larger-than-life Leah Adler, former owner of the still-running The Milky Way restaurant in Los Angeles — where people would come to see her “shrine to her son Steven” (in the words of LA locals) and eat the blintzes and other dairy comfort food she offered.
Unlike other Jewish mother-son movies in which the resolution seems contrived or unsatisfying, “The Fabelmans” presents a unique relationship between a Jewish mother and her son. The movie makes it easy to imagine a future in which Sammy, like his real-life counterpart, can grow up to tell a story about his path and the pain his family felt — but never forgets that they all loved each other. In the end, both mother and son are able to get what they wanted.
6. It’s a Spielberg movie. Need we say more?