In any event, they all are referenced as Spielberg creates a new iteration of this trick in which Mitzi dances for all the men in her life while on a camping trip: husband Burt (Paul Dano), son Sammy, and even her emotional soulmate Bennie. All three men, including the son, are enraptured and perhaps bewitched by her dancing, much to her daughters’ chagrin. Each character also has the camera slowly dolly into their enchantment.
In a recent profile interview with Time magazine, Spielberg revealed he discussed the idea of what became The Fabelmans with his mother before she passed in 2017, and she told him that he’s always been making their story in metaphor. The Fabelmans drops the metaphor.
For instance, Spielberg recounted how he once stumbled onto his father crying in a bathtub as a young man, and the young Steven could not comprehend his father’s nuanced, adult pain. Instead he was repelled. While that incident does not appear in The Fabelmans, it did occur in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with Dreyfuss’ soon-to-be longtime absentee dad weeping in the bathroom when his son barges in and expresses his disgust.
In The Fabelmans, Sam is far more empathetic toward his father (Paul Dano), but he still sees him cry at the end when Sammy accidentally shows the old man a photo of his mother with Bennie, now happily together in Arizona.
In this way, the movie feels a piece with many of Spielberg’s films. The broken family is essential to Close Encounters and E.T. (with more blame placed on the father than in the magnanimous Fabelmans), and for all its imperfections, Hook zeroes in on a father and son who’ve let a difference of temperament grow into a chasm. (Peter Pan was also apparently one of his mother’s favorite stories.)
Later in life, an older Spielberg reconciled with his father. Subsequently, he depicted a father/son dynamic that was warmer in Catch Me If You Can (2002). And in that movie, their time together was cut short due to a son’s own bullheadedness. (The relationship between Leonardo DiCaprio’s protagonist in that film and his mother is also more complex and ultimately scarred by the boy discovering her infidelity before his old man.)