With All Due Respect, ‘The Fabelmans’ Is Just ‘Dawson’s Creek’
This year’s holiday release, The Fabelmans, has been heralded as director Steven Spielberg’s most personal work to date — a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about a nebbish young boy exploring his love of filmmaking. As a lifelong Spielberg acolyte, I love that for E.T.’s dad. After decades of bringing stories of adventure, whimsy and sentiment to his fans, Spielberg finally got to tell us about himself. So imagine my surprise when I realized I’d seen this story before. Not on the silver screen, but over the course of six seasons on the WB. With The Fablemans, Spielberg has finally made his Dawson’s Creek (no offense).
For the uninitiated, Dawson’s Creek is the story of Dawson Leery, a virginal teen who spends all the extra time he has from not having sex waxing poetic about the films of none other than Steven Spielberg. Similar to Sammy Fabelman, Spielberg’s proxy in The Fabelmans, Dawson fills his days directing amateur genre movies, taking inspiration from Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Blair Witch Project. Unlike Sammy, Dawson is 6-feet tall and wears unfathomably large shirts. I’m talking Lands’ End sweaters so big that if you were to put a young Sammy Fabelman in a Dawson Leery shirt, you’re going to have to call a rescue team to find the little guy. But at the end of the day, Sammy and Dawson are both suburban movie dorks trying to make it through high school — uniquely inspired by the manic ethereality of Michelle Williams (playing mom and new girl in town, respectively) and the haunting impossibility of their moms’ respective chosen hairstyles.
Crucially, Dawson’s life is all but upended when, while reviewing a tape of his newscaster mother’s recent broadcast, he notices her undeniable chemistry with her co-anchor, Bob. Some director kids just have a sixth sense about these things. Case in point: Sammy has a similar mommy’s-cheating experience on a family camping trip as he pores over footage shot on his own camera, becoming fixated on the intrigue of a waist touch from his dad’s best friend, played by pottery enthusiast Seth Rogen.
Learning that their mothers are cheating on their aloof fathers via home video proves to be a galvanizing force for both young filmmakers — their senses of security upended through the curious director’s lens of their own making! Embarrassing! They each cope by shaming Michelle Williams for her sexual urges. Sammy withdraws and gets in a fight with her before a swimming test, and Dawson breaks up with her after learning she isn’t a virgin. More embarrassment!
Meanwhile, in the hierarchy of movie and television high schools, guys who like movies are unabashedly on the bottom. And so, in order to survive, these Spielberg-inspired film nerds ask their classmates to star in their movies. Sammy bamboozles his jock enemy by making him the star of his student film, and Dawson screens a propaganda-style video featuring his quarterback friend. Despite almost zero social clout, they have mild success with girls, who invariably at some point in their relationships say something like, “Life isn’t like one of your movies, Dawson/Sammy, you can’t just yell cut when you see something you don’t like.”
When they’ve finally made it to college — Sammy surviving Northern Californian anti-Semitism; Dawson surviving narcing on his girlfriend’s dad to the FBI — they decide the rigor of university life isn’t for dreamers like them. Nope, low-paying assistant work under the bright lights of Hollywood proves far too enticing.
Given that Dawson admires Spielberg to the point of religious devotion, Dawson’s Creek and The Fabelmans’ similarities are less a carbon copy and more two different layers of an incredibly strange nesting doll. Which is to say, despite the aforementioned perfectly matched plot beats, they do have their differences. The Fabelmans, for instance, lacks Joshua Jackson as a hot lovable scamp, or what some would call a crucial part of any hero’s journey. They do, however, share an ending. In the final moments of The Fabelmans, while working a thankless studio lot job, Sammy gets five minutes of face time with his most influential director — a crotchety John Ford as played by David Lynch; and in the final moments of Dawson’s Creek, now showrunner Dawson Leery reveals he’s snagged a meeting with old Stevie Fabelman himself (completely off-camera, because let’s be real, Spielberg for sure turned down such a cameo).
Realistically, The Fabelmans will attract awards attention for its cast and creative credits alone — if you get Tony Kushner, John Williams, Paul Dano and Michelle Williams in a room together, you’re practically halfway to a Vanity Fair Oscars after-party. Let’s just hope that when Spielberg and Kushner are up there accepting a statuette for Best Original Screenplay or whatever, they remember that they’re merely standing on the shoulders of Dawson Leery.