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It’s the season of festive family gatherings and all they bring: gratitude, laughter, nostalgia . . . but also grief, alienation, and a variety of other complex emotions.
Three new-release movies—The Fabelmans, Armageddon Time, and Aftersun—grapple with the range of emotions conjured by family. Each is a “memoir film” by a director depicting his or her own childhood, yet each provides universal insights into the potent force that is family.
In The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg recounts his upbringing in a devout Jewish family in the 1950s and ’60s and how his childhood interest in amateur movie-making developed in part as a way to cope with his parents’ strained relationship and the anti-Semitic bullying he faced at school. In Armageddon Time, James Gray (Lost City of Z, Ad Astra) reflects on his own upbringing in a Jewish family, this time in 1980s Queens. Finally, in her directorial debut, Scottish director Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun explores father-daughter dynamics through a collage of memories from Wells’s childhood vacations with her dad.
Over the holidays, plenty of lighter-fare movies will be available for family trips to the multiplex (or the Netflix screen). But if you’re interested in more thought-provoking, nuanced explorations of familial complexity, consider these three.
Before he was the iconic director who basically invented the summer blockbuster (Jaws, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, etc.), Steven Spielberg was a middle-class Jewish kid who made amateur movies as a hobby. On one level, The Fabelmans is a “making the artist” self-portrait, showing Spielberg’s auteurist development from a boy in New Jersey (named Sammy Fabelman in the film) to a teen in Phoenix and, eventually, in California. The film would be interesting enough if it were just this, but the deeper layer here—as indicated by the film’s title—is the importance of family in Spielberg’s formation.
Sammy’s mom Mitzi (played spectacularly by Michelle Williams) and dad Burt (Paul Dano) loom especially large in the story, as do an “uncle” / family friend (Seth Rogen) and a great-uncle (Judd Hirsch). His little sisters, friends, and eventually a famous movie director also shape Sammy’s trajectory along the way. The point is clear: artists are not self-made in a vacuum but products of a collective web of sticky relationships that both strengthen and sting.
The movie grapples with the tension between an artist’s free-spirited, risk-seeking individualism and the value of relational stability and fidelity. Mitzi represents the former while Burt the latter. The tension in their marriage mirrors the film’s larger art-versus-family tension. On one hand, artists benefit from a healthy, supportive family that creates a safe space in which they can experiment and take risks. On the other hand, artists can feel constrained by long-term commitments and suffocated by familial norms and expectations.
This is the experience of Mitzi in the film, and ultimately she chooses to forsake family for the sake of self-expression. Echoing the spirit of the age, she tells Sammy at one point, “You do what your heart says you have to, so you don’t owe anyone your life.” As heart-tugging as this exchange is meant to be, it contradicts Spielberg’s own thesis in the film. Because The Fabelmans is nothing if not a homage to the people Spielberg’s career is indebted to—including Mitzi, in spite of or perhaps because of her faults. However much Spielberg or any of us do what our hearts insists we do, the successes of our lives are almost always owed far more to others than they are to ourselves.
Gratitude is a complicated concept in Armageddon Time, James Gray’s 1980-set memoir about his own childhood in Queens, New York. Should we feel guilty or grateful for advantages we’ve had in life thanks to the sacrifices of our parents and grandparents? Is it OK to see one’s privilege as a gift to gratefully accept? “I learned a long time ago that you’ve got to be thankful when you’re given a leg up,” Irving Graff (Jeremy Strong) tells his son Paul (Banks Repeta) in a crucial scene. It’s unclear whether we’re meant to sympathize with Irving or squirm when he tells his son that “life is unfair” and some folks just end up getting a “raw deal.”
But that’s part of the film’s power. It’s both grateful for and uneasy about aspects of the “American Dream.” The film’s complex view of gratitude and privilege in America is underscored when the final scene takes place at an elite private school’s annual Thanksgiving Dance, where teenage students in preppy sweaters are encouraged to embrace their elite identity and lean into their destinies as America’s future leaders.
Is it OK to see one’s privilege as a gift to gratefully accept?
Armageddon Time (which takes its name from a Ronald Reagan quote) isn’t a straightforward celebration of family and generational advancement in America, but neither is it an arrogant dismissal of the goods we inherit from our forebears. Though not an explicit theme, “grace” is implicit all over the film—whether in tender moments between Paul and his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) or in the juxtaposition between Paul’s crowded dinner table and the homeless plight of his friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb). Can Paul receive the graces of his life as gifts he didn’t earn, or will he resent them with guilt for his inexplicable fortune? It’s a question at the heart of the film and at the heart of anyone’s true grasp of the gospel (Eph. 2:8–9).
Aftersun is similar to The Fabelmans and Armageddon Time in its interest in the fraught emotions our memories of childhood evoke. Like Spielberg and Gray, Charlotte Wells paints a portrait of family (in this case, just her father) that is deeply appreciative yet painfully honest.
Set in the late 1990s at cheap beach resorts in Turkey, the impressionistic film observes 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) as she spends what might be a last summer vacation with her 30-year-old father, Calum (Paul Mescal), who is no longer with Sophie’s mom.
The film is told from Sophie’s perspective 20 years later, wrestling with the beauty and purity of those childhood memories with her dad in light of what she came to know later of the messy life he led. Wells leaves the details of Calum’s tortured life oblique—only hinting ominously at the path his life took after this paradise-like bliss with his daughter (“after sun”). The film sees him through Sophie’s adoring eyes. Even when he disappoints her, as in a karaoke scene when Calum refuses to join his eager daughter onstage as she sings R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” the film moves on quickly in a forgiving way. As much as Calum’s failings as a father no doubt damage Sophie, the film isn’t primarily about that. It’s about the good moments when he was present with his daughter, the final sun-bathed days before the darkness set in.
Wells has written that an inspiration for the film’s tone is the Turkish word hasret, which means “some combination of longing, love, and loss.” It feels akin to the joyful longing evoked in the German word sehnsucht. Indeed, Aftersun captures the poignant beauty of ephemeral joy—moments our memory can miraculously suspend in time. We’re dropped into the story in medias res, with no context or hint as to what has happened to Calum and Sophie in the past or what might happen (though a recurring rave/dream sequence in the present day invites audiences to make some guesses). Our many unanswered plot questions are less important than the feeling Wells wants to communicate via the assemblage of moments and images on-screen—that passing joy when we feel safe, known, loved, and present with the people God entrusted us to as family.
Hope for Broken Families
When Christians watch films like the three above—just a recent sampling of the vast genre of “memoir films”—we can first of all relate to them on a purely human level. Each of us has a unique family story and history that’s no doubt a mixed bag, memories of childhood that surface a hasret mix of longing, love, and loss. These stories are common-grace narratives that share personal narratives in universally resonant ways. We should listen to the stories of others and let them shine light on our own.
But we can also see these films as expressions of cultural longings regarding family: hope for the ideal family, disappointment about the reality of it, and desire to know how to bridge the gap. In a culture ravaged by the sexual revolution, where more families are broken than whole, Christians can offer a paradigm of hope and tools for healing. Believers can be “pro-family” not in a cheesy or arrogant way—as if our homes are untainted by brokenness—but in a humble and biblical way, pointing others both to the good of God’s design for the biological family and the good of God’s design for the ecclesial family: the church.
Against the modern fallacy that individuals are autonomous—their identities entirely projects of self-creation—Christians can echo the common-grace truth made clear in these films: From cradle to grave, for better or worse, we are formed by others. When that formation is healthy, it’s a gift of grace. When it’s unhealthy and toxic, the gospel gives us hope. However broken our earthly homes may be, a better family is possible: the household of God held together by the cornerstone of Christ (Eph. 2:19–22).