Steven Spielberg’s movies all take inspiration from his life, but he goes for full-on autobiography in “The Fabelmans.”
The name was changed from “Spielberg” to “Fabelman,” but the comedy/drama is the story of how Spielberg became a filmmaker after he received a movie camera as a gift and his parents took him to see the wretched “The Greatest Show on Earth.” (It was a hit and an Oscar winner, so let’s not fault them on their taste.)
By far the best scenes in “Fabelmans” show adolescent Steven — sorry, Sammy — filming his family, then editing that into a movie that shapes his understanding of the world around him. That peaks in an intense sequence when, studying the background of home movies of a family camping trip, he realizes that his mom (Michelle Williams) is having an affair with a family friend (Seth Rogen).
Repeatedly, “Fabelmans” gives us clues to the filmmaker Spielberg will become, including a teenage war epic that will bear fruit decades later in “Saving Private Ryan,” but those camping scenes are the movie’s heart. Young, heartbroken Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) doesn’t understand the undercurrents that derail his family. That helps us see why Spielberg has shied away from complex emotions in his movies and why he has finally captured the most complicated portrait of human behavior of his five-decade career.
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LaBelle plays the protagonist, but mercurial Williams is the one you look to in every scene. Her Mitzi is depicted as decades ahead of her time, a free-spirited artist who has no outlet for her creativity and is the emotional opposite of her scientific husband (Paul Dano).
“Fabelmans” gets that nobody but the two people in a marriage really understands it (maybe not even them), but it plays like a love letter to Spielberg’s parents, as well as an acknowledgment that he’s a lot like both of them.
It’s also a love letter to the movies, which Spielberg caps off with a visual joke that few filmmakers would have the confidence to attempt. There’s insight into how a director works, especially in sequences when we see something happen in the Fabelman family and then see it again as Sammy makes sense of it in Super 8.
And I don’t want to spoil the moment when Sammy finally gets onto a Hollywood backlot, but it’s a beaut, with a terrific performance by a legendary director, playing another legend.
I was less enamored of scenes at Sammy’s California high school, dealing with prejudice and beach blanket bingo. The film has no insight into how antisemitism shaped Spielberg’s work, unless we’re supposed to connect getting punched on the volleyball court with “Schindler’s List,” and Sammy’s dating travails are not as compelling as the rest of the stuff in his life.
Spielberg gets the movie back on track, though, and, still operating at the top of his game, his “Fabelmans” all but guarantees there’s more great work to come from him.
What “The Fabelmans” • Three stars out of four • Run time 2:31 • Rating PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use