‘The Fabelmans’: Steven Spielberg Tenderly Turns the Camera on His Own Childhood

Steven Spielberg’s new film, “The Fabelmans,” joins the growing catalog of major directors now turning the lens on themselves. But Spielberg is not just any major director. He is the most influential filmmaker of the last four decades. One would easily expect an autobiographical opus made in his signature, grandiose fashion with stunning wide shots, flashlights piercing darkened woods or references to his biggest blockbusters. Instead, this is an intimate, tender and heartbreaking magic lantern of a movie. It is absolutely about the roots of Spielberg’s vocation, capturing those first moments where a young mind can grasp the marriage of images and story. It is also about the feeling that your family is somehow weirder than everyone else’s, the loneliness of the outlier and learning just how tragically flawed the adults are. Such is the story of countless families. What Spielberg brings across so well is how such memories are also the material that will feed a storyteller’s need to process life.

The Fabelmans of the title are a middle class Jewish family composed of Burt (Paul Dano), a brilliant computer engineer, his wife, the artsy Mitzi (Michelle Williams), and their kids, including Sammy (first played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord). This story begins as it must, with Burt and Mitzi taking young Sammy to his first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.” A train crash sequence leaves such a mark on young Sammy that he attempts to recreate the moment with his toys at home. The family dynamics have their own quirky structure. Burt is the reserved example of a white picket fenced husband. Mitzi is a joker and outgoing. She was once a promising concert pianist who gave it all up to raise a family. Mitzi is also very attached to Burt’s friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen), a fellow clown. When Burt is offered a new job promotion in Arizona, he moves the family, along with Bennie, to the desert state. Sammy (played as a teen by Gabriel LaBelle) continues to develop a love for filmmaking, making his first efforts with impressive little shorts. When he enters high school, the terrain is more menacing and richer.

“The Fabelmans” marks the latest collaboration between Spielberg and acclaimed playwright Tony Kushner, who since 2005’s daring and prescient “Munich,” has helped mark a rich phase in Spielberg’s growth as a versatile director. The old master might still churn out popcorn spectacles like “Ready Player One,” but his best recent work including “Lincoln” and last year’s stunning “West Side Story,” has featured Kushner’s layered, even politically radical pen. Together they craft a fantasia of characters which channel Spielberg’s recollections. If there is a “plot” it is Sammy’s gradual discovery of what the very act of telling a story on film means. But like life itself, the structure is more about these people and everything they carry. Spielberg’s capacity for reverie is present, as expected, with the kind of scenes we can’t resist smiling at or being swept away by. Yet there is also a much more intimate, starkly honest voice in “The Fabelmans.” Spielberg, known as a creator of iconic spectacles, has never shied away from looking at real pain, as in “Schindler’s List” and “The Color Purple.” Now he looks at his own family album, where moments of joy are also sitting next to moments of sad revelation. Sammy films a family camping trip, then while editing the footage finds moments he could have never guessed his camera captured, revealing something about his mother that will mark him forever. What he discovers and how is one of the most eloquently simple examples Spielberg has given on how to show and not say in a movie.

It is in how Spielberg captures the ordinary happenings of the everyday that somehow work to give this film a driving feel. Each moment or memory is not meaningless, even when it could be Mitzi waking up at night, dreaming of her recently deceased mother calling on the phone. A drive can have quiet tension in how Burt utters a phrase to his wife, who is so incompatible with him that we wonder how this marriage happened. This angle of the story is never overblown and feels more authentic, because it’s about how a marriage can fall apart silently, not always with violent outbursts. And it all connects to Sammy’s growing passion in ways he can’t quite explain yet. He shoots a small war film and finds himself directing one of his fellow teen actors to try and pull out true sadness from him, no doubt fueled by what he himself is experiencing at home. It is how actual directing works, if not the creation of art in general. A tight-knit family can be a blessing and also a curse at the same time, since everyone is enclosed with their positives and negatives. Subtle moments will then teach Sammy the magic of capturing moments with light. During a camping trip a tipsy Mitzi, lost in her own desires and regrets, does an elegant dance by the campfire which Sammy films. Such a moment hints at the way Spielberg would later craft so many images that feel like daydreams. Longtime Spielberg collaborators, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams return with a visual style and music that hold back and elevate the movie’s simple beauty.

When Burt is again offered a promotion, this time in central California, Spielberg enters familiar biopic territory but heightened by his special touch. Sammy quickly learns he’s the only Jew at his high school, and is constantly reminded of it by the jocks and bullies, who make idiotic anti-Semitic insults. Spielberg never idealizes Sammy as some heroic guy who then proves his coolness to the bullies. Emerging chaos at home now goes hand-in-hand with the frustrations of adolescent life. He also gets his first girlfriend, the rowdy “Christian” Monica (an endearingly funny Chloe East). Prom doesn’t go as planned (when does it?) but in a moment so stirring in that way Spielberg knows how to do, Sammy shows his latest film and it shatters the façade of even a bully like Logan Hall (Sam Rechner), because of the overpowering sensation of seeing himself in a piece of film. Such moments make “The Fabelmans” truly special. Some of the best movies of this kind can be about those names and faces that we come across in life who share a special episode that marks a turning point. Sammy’s Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) visits and shares his tales of working in the circus, before cornering Sammy and being the only one to honestly tell him he is an artist. Julia Butters of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is memorable as Sammy’s younger sister, who eventually shares with him the collective worry that their family may soon face some real inner crisis. The great David Lynch delivers one of the year’s best cameos as legendary director John Ford, who barks at Sammy his first important lesson in filmmaking from a professional. 

Michelle Williams and Paul Dano help make this trip back into Spielberg’s memory banks complete with performances that capture the conflicting personalities that shaped the director. Burt is the practical one, who worries Sammy is chasing after a hobby. Mitzi encourages him to dream even as she wallows in a piercing guilt over what’s truly going on in her marriage. “The Fabelmans” is a portrait that helps us understand Spielberg the artist and person a little better, without the pretension and pomp other major directors throw around in their self-inspired movies. That in itself is a window into why he is who he is. Even when dealing with dinosaurs, temples of doom and alien invasions, Spielberg has been obsessed with the imperfections of family, the yearning for companionship and the comfort of innocence. At their best, his characters are relatable in their humanness. Now he’s the main character. “The Fabelmans” works as an absorbing meditation on our roots and how the family tree, with all of its joys and bitter moments, shapes us. 

The Fabelmans” releases Nov. 11 in select theaters and expands Nov. 24 in theaters nationwide.