One of the most common themes among established big-name directors this awards season is the memoir film, with directors like James Gray (Armageddon Time), Sam Mendes (Empire of Light), and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Bardo) aiming to make career-defining magnum opuses out of dramatic reenactments & distortions of personal memories. Only Steven Spielberg appears to have emerged from that 2022 memoir scrum victorious. The Fabelmans makes a fable out of Spielberg’s youth, tracking his fascination with The Power of Cinema from his first trip to the theater (to see the circus-themed studio epic The Greatest Show on Earth) to his teenage use of filmmaking as a therapy tool throughout his parents’ divorce. It’s being heralded as one of the best movies of the year, if not the best of Spielberg’s career . . . and I don’t understand that praise in the slightest. If anything, I’m terrified to contract whatever subvariant of Film Twitter Brain Rot makes critics believe The Fabelmans is “late-style” Movie Magic but Cinema Paradiso is cornball schmaltz. To his credit, Spielberg ensures that his memoir movie isn’t entirely comprised of shots of projectors flickering behind awed audiences modeling period costumes (although there is plenty of that ready-made imagery to go around); the movie is densely packed with detailed personal memories and messy interpersonal conflicts that are supposed to distinguish it from the more unembarrassed schmaltz of Parasiso. And yet, the whole thing rings generic & phony, barely a step above the “aww shucks” Boomer nostalgia of A Christmas Story – if you’re not as reverent of Spielberg’s prominence in the cinema canon as the director is himself. And it turns out plenty of people are, as evidenced by the film’s success over its fellow movie memoirs.
The most frustrating thing about The Fabelmans is there is a genuinely compelling, emotionally thorny drama at its core. Through his geeky onscreen avatar Sammy Fabelman, Spielberg time travels back to a pivotal moment in his relationship with his mother (played by Michelle Williams in Judy Garland meltdown mode, sporting a lime cat haircut). Beyond the broad caricatures of his mother as a right-brained free spirit—explaining the magic & poetry of movies to him after that fateful Greatest Show on Earth screening—and his father as a practical left-brained engineer—explaining the mechanics of movies as a technological illusion—the movie pinpoints their separation as a painful, epiphanic moment when Spielberg first saw his parents as real, flawed people, not just faceless pillars of authority & love. It’s too bad that brain-breaking, cinema-rattling epiphany is buried under so much self-mythology about Spielberg’s early stirrings as an amateur filmmaker. Instead of digging into the discomfort & detail of his changing relationship with his parents, the movie runs itself ragged trying to collect as many origin stories for the greatest hits of Spielberg Tropes as it can in 151 minutes. We see the kids-on-bikes nostalgia of his early career-defining genre films foretold by his afternoon rides with his childhood boy scout troupe; we see a D.I.Y. trial run for his prestigious war epic Saving Private Ryan met with rapturous applause as the greatest backyard movie of all time; and, in the godawful concluding scene, we see him take direct inspiration from his boyhood hero John Ford, for no reason in particular. The emotional core that supposedly separates The Fabelmans from sentimental schmaltz like Cinema Paradiso (a film I far prefer, at least for its clarity in intent) is buried under so much phony self-mythology that it has no room to resonate with any heft.
I was much more impressed with the smaller, more intimate memoir distortions of The Eternal Daughter that joined this year’s “autofiction” pile-up, if not only for being more direct & streamlined in its mother-child drama of discomforts. Joanna Hogg’s latest is much less ostentatious than Spielberg’s by default, filmed on an independent budget under COVID-19 lockdowns instead of working with the kind of extravagant studio funds that are afforded to the world’s most famous director. Hogg finds plenty of room for layered artifice in her small-cast drama, though, even while never losing sight of the mother-daughter tension at its core. The Eternal Daughter is a slippery little supernatural mystery film that defies the tidiest boxes you want to file it away in. It’s a ghost story about memory, not ghosts. It’s directly connected to Hogg’s autobiographical Souvenir saga, but it works perfectly fine on its own, like a long-running series’ standalone, spooky Christmas special. Tilda Swinton plays a mother-daughter duo in a dual role, but neither of performance is overly affected, and the back-and-forth bickering between them is more subtly devastating than cute. In The Souvenir Parts I & II, Swinton’s real-life daughter (and Hogg’s real-life goddaughter) Honor Swinton Byrne played Hogg’s Sammy Fabelman avatar, while Swinton played her fictional mother onscreen. In The Eternal Daughter, Swinton plays both roles, aged decades into the future, as they share an especially dour vacation in an empty hotel on the ghostly moors of Wales. None of that Russian nesting-doll artifice really matters, though. Neither does the ghost story framing of its drama. All that matters is the way Hogg wrestles with the passive aggressive tensions of her mostly healthy relationship with her mother, and how a child seeing their parent’s personality & behavior reflected in themselves can be both wonderful & horrific, often simultaneously.
In the emotional climax of The Eternal Daughter, both versions of Swinton bicker about what time they should eat a celebratory birthday dinner. That sounds like a minor frustration, but it’s far more hilarious and heartbreaking than any of the life-altering divorce drama from Spielberg’s actual relived childhood in The Fabelmans. Listening to a mother-daughter duo volley “What do you think?” & “I’m not going to eat if you don’t” back and forth in an endless shot, reverse-shot nightmare feels painfully, relatably true to how passive aggressive, self-conflicted parental relationships play out in real life – even though you’re watching two Tilda Swintons bicker in a haunted hotel. Somehow, Spielberg is staging dramatic reenactments of complex parental & marital betrayals that actually did happen in real life, and it all feels thuddingly false, inauthentic. As a pair, both The Fabelmans and The Eternal Daughter find their filmmakers looking back on personal, familial memories and struggling with how the good feelings of the past are jumbled with the bad. From there, your appreciation of either is almost a question of genre. Are you more interested in the Raised By The Movies nostalgia trips of mainstream directors mythologizing their own childhoods as historical turning points in the artform, or are you more interested in the atmospheric tensions of a haunted-hotel ghost story that plays out under the eerie mood lighting of green & blue gels? I found Hogg’s film more thematically direct & concise than Spielberg’s, which feels like a simultaneous one-for-them-one-for-me compromise that dilutes what he’s trying to work out onscreen. My assumption is that his is the best of the recent crop of movie memoirs from Hollywood filmmaking giants, since the people who are more interested in that kind of thing have been singling it out as something special, a cut above. I’ll likely never find out for myself, since there’s no promise of ghosts nor Tilda Swinton casting stunts to lure me in.