Note: This article includes spoilers for The Fabelmans and Aftersun.
We all reach a point in life where our perception of our parents begins to change. For some, this process is gradual, perhaps occurring only after years of reflection. For others, it comes sharply, shattering the naïveté that constituted our world.
Two recent films—and two of the best films from 2022—focus on investigating this shift. While the films are quite different on their surface, they share a striking connection: Both movies center on characters who are looking back at their lives through movies. The camera becomes the tool that leads them to a new, more complex understanding of their parents.
Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans is a semi-autobiographical portrait of a developing artist. It begins as the young Sammy Fabelman (primarily played by Gabriel LaBelle) watches The Greatest Show on Earth and becomes fascinated by movies. While the movies he encounters can contain thrilling and terrifying scenes (such as the train crash that gives him a nightmare), they also offer a seductive means of control, giving Sammy the ability to edit and structure those terrors. It brings a semblance of order to a chaotic world.
As he grows older, Sammy’s filmmaking skills sharpen. He learns new tricks for editing and framing stunts, and he begins to rope in his friends to participate in his creative visions. But even when he’s not making movies, Sammy’s rarely without a camera. Whether at home or on vacation with his family, he’s always capturing moments that can be later pieced together into something resembling a story.
But while movies offer Sammy a sense of control, they also hold the power to shake loose his understanding of the world. As he edits a family camping trip, assembling the scattered moments into a coherent framework, Sammy discovers a story that was always there: His mother is actually in love with a family friend. What was invisible in the momentary glances and flickers of affection becomes undeniable when stitched together on film.
Sammy reels from the footage, wishing to forget what he’s seen, but it’s too late. The realization shatters the easy understanding he once had of his parents, and he’s left with a complicated picture of deeply flawed people. That shattering begins with his parents, but once the box is opened, it’s hard to fit everything back in. As The Fabelmans follows Sammy into adolescence, it continually explores how his relationship with the camera complicates his view of the world. As he navigates high school, early romance, and starting a career, every relationship becomes more complex when experienced through the lens of his camera.
While The Fabelmans is an intricate, skillful interrogation of the artistic drive made by one of our greatest filmmakers, my personal favorite film of 2022 was Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun. Her debut feature primarily takes place during a vacation in Turkey shared by Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her father, Calum (Paul Mescal). Calum is divorced from Sophie’s mother, but he’s an attentive and mostly kind father, and this vacation represents an important chance for him to connect with Sophie as she shifts from childhood into her teenage years. And Sophie is shifting in the typical ways, observing the flirtations and fixations of a group of older teens while curious about what such interactions will offer in years to come.
But other, subtler shifts are at the aching core of Aftersun. The film is laced with recorded home movies in all their grainy, shaky glory. As Aftersun unfolds, we realize that Sophie is actually rewatching these home videos as an adult, looking to come to a fuller understanding of who her father was.
At first, it seems like the trip to Turkey was a vacation for Sophie to recall fondly, mostly with moments of fun and joy. However, there was also the time when her dad disappeared late at night, inadvertently locking her out of their hotel room, or the dinner when Calum suddenly, somewhat cruelly, refused to join Sophie for karaoke. What Sophie (and the audience) gradually comes to understand is that her father suffered under the weight of a terrible depression. At times this left him harsh or detached, alone in his pain even while sharing a fun vacation with his daughter.
Wells unravels these aspects of Calum subtly and expertly, building to an emotional payoff that feels both unexpected and inevitable. For Sophie, though, there are still so many questions. Despite the home videos she can return to, her father’s depression is something that, at most, can only be seen at the edges of the frame. Her videos don’t see Calum wishing to march into the dark sea in the dead of night; they don’t preserve the moments of him sobbing alone in the hotel room.
Unlike the instant of fracture that Sammy encounters, Sophie’s perception of her father is something she’s still piecing together. She’s come to an acknowledgement of Calum’s depression, though perhaps not a full understanding, and she’s left with a truly complicated picture: a generous, caring dad trapped under a persistent weight that occasionally caused him to hurt those he loved.
Both Sammy and Sophie use movies to reframe their understanding of their parents’ humanity. Neither film is out to demonize or venerate these parents; Spielberg and Wells alike treat these flawed men and women with dignity, compassion, and consistent honesty.
Maintaining that consistent honesty and compassion in our own lives requires difficult work. It can be tempting to flatten our parents into people either irreparably broken or of pure benevolence. We can harden the hurt we experienced in our parent’s failings, crystallizing it into a bitterness that we refract into every relationship to come. Conversely, we can convince ourselves that our parents were without flaws, never moved by selfishness or fear or pain. But neither of those reactions do justice to our parents’ humanity. Aftersun and The Fabelmans are both meaningful and nuanced explorations of the truth that lies somewhere in-between.
The Bible itself depicts a multifaceted understanding of the relationships between children and parents. It’s honest about this fractured world and the ways that a parent’s brokenness cascades into the lives of children. At the same time, it exhorts a more flourishing, formative relationship, ultimately creating a vision that casts parenthood as a reflection of God’s redemptive Fatherhood.
And so in Genesis, we trace how Isaac and Rebekah’s favoritism toward their children fueled a violent, competitive struggle between Jacob and Esau that would last decades. David’s life gives a stark picture of how his sins and failures not only pushed his son Absalom toward rebellion, but also threatened to break apart the entirety of Israel. The wounds and their consequences are real, and the Bible is honest about them.
But it also offers a more hopeful picture. Proverbs contains numerous encouragements for parents to walk in the way of integrity and the fear of the Lord for the stated reason that it will result in their children’s flourishing. Such exhortations carry forward into the New Testament, as Paul directs parents not to provoke their children lest they become discouraged, but rather, to provide discipline and instruction. Elsewhere, Paul praises Timothy’s mother and grandmother for the faith that they passed on to Timothy. Through these and other examples, the Bible makes clear that children can also be richly blessed by their parents.
Taken all together, Scripture provides a hopeful honesty about our relationship to our parents. If we find ourselves hurt and surprised by their brokenness, we are not alone in that experience. And yet, there’s also the possibility for growth and beauty. Ultimately, that possibility aims to reflect God’s love for us: a love in which we find fulfillment and restoration, no matter the wounds or uncertainties laid on us by our parents. The Bible reveals God as our Father who gives good things to his children, who has made us his children in the abundance of his love, and who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing as his adopted children.
At the center of both The Fabelmans and Aftersun are characters reflecting on their childhood, looking to better understand who their parents were. Some of that reflection leads to joy, some to sorrow. But it’s a necessary reflection that extends beyond just Sammy and Sophie. We are all forced to contend with the multifaceted nature of our parents’ humanity. Whether those reflections leave us hurting or hopeful, we can always find redemptive fulfillment and grace as children of God.