No director has done more to deconstruct the myth of the suburban American family than Steven Spielberg. Dissertations have been written and documentaries made on the subject. And now, at the spry young age of 75, Spielberg himself weighs in on where his preoccupations come from in “The Fabelmans,” a personal account of his upbringing that feels like listening to two and a half hours’ worth of well-polished cocktail-party anecdotes, only better, since he’s gone to the trouble of staging them all for our benefit. Spielberg’s a born storyteller, and these are arguably his most precious stories.
From the first movie he saw (“The Greatest Show on Earth”) to memories of meeting filmmaker John Ford on the Paramount lot, this endearing, broadly appealing account of how Spielberg was smitten by the medium — and why the prodigy nearly abandoned picture-making before his career even started — holds the keys to so much of the master’s filmography. More similar to Woody Allen’s autobiographical “Radio Days” than it is to European art films such as “The 400 Blows” and “Amarcord” (the more highbrow models other directors typically point to when re-creating their childhoods), “The Fabelmans” invites audiences into the home and headspace of the world’s most beloved living director, an oddly sanitized zone where even the trauma — which includes anti-Semitism, financial disadvantage and divorce — seems to go better with fresh-buttered popcorn.
Now, if you’ve grown up with Spielberg’s movies (and who hasn’t?), you’ve surely picked up on certain recurring themes, especially in the way parents relate to their kids. Whether it’s an emotionally distant dad letting his family fall apart in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or an adult Peter Pan fighting for his children in “Hook,” such bonds clearly matter in Spielberg’s on-screen fictions because the same connections broke down in his off-screen reality. Here, the director (with repeat collaborator Tony Kushner helping him to write his first script since 2001’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”) shares what his own family was like — while allowing room for a certain amount of creative license, of course.
Dad is an engineer named Burt (Paul Dano) whose early work in the field of computer science obliges the Fabelmans to move houses multiple times over a few years’ time, from New Jersey to Arizona to Northern California. Michelle Williams plays his more emotionally sensitive mother, Mitzi, who could have been a concert pianist, going out of her way to encourage the creative interests of her son Sam (Gabrielle LaBelle). Mitzi is also prone to depression and behavior the young boy can’t always understand — but which six decades of introspection and analysis have apparently clarified in his mind.
Mom has a similar capacity to psychoanalyze her kids, recognizing how little Sammy (played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord in the earliest scenes) can’t seem to handle a train wreck he witnessed in “The Greatest Show on Earth.” It’s all just a movie, of course, but before he can move on, the boy is compelled to reconstruct how the effect was done by using a model train set and his own 8mm camera. And thus a filmmaker is born — with an anecdote that ties Spielberg’s origins back to the apocryphal story of the Lumière brothers’ “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station” having stunned cinema’s first audiences into leaping from their seats.
To quote John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” the only other film Spielberg acknowledges seeing as a boy: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” What fun it must have been for the director to reenact his first in-camera experiments, from wrapping his sisters in toilet paper for a mummy movie to “Escape to Nowhere,” the 40-minute war film the Boy Scout made with his friends. Watching him shoot the latter, it’s hard not to think of the Spielberg-produced “Super 8,” which featured a group of underage amateur filmmakers teaching themselves the ropes (or better still, “Raiders!,” the delightful 2015 documentary about kids who attempted to make a shot-for-shot remake of the first “Indiana Jones” movie).
For a certain personality type, filmmaking is a contagious compulsion, and it’s entertaining to see how the bug bit Spielberg — although a dose of irreverence might’ve been more effective, leaning into how endearingly clumsy those efforts were (à la “Son of Rambow”). Instead, Spielberg and DP Janusz Kaminski give the impression that these early films were a lot more polished. Those looking for Easter eggs will likely delight at how a few of Spielberg’s signature techniques (like showing a face react to something incredible before cutting to what the person is seeing) trace back as far as these experiments. Who would have thought that the Normandy Beach opening of “Saving Private Ryan” might have its roots in “Escape to Nowhere,” for example?
The movie takes a turn for the serious when Sam makes an alarming discovery among the footage he took of a family camping trip, as if pint-size Spielberg had temporarily stepped into Antonioni’s “Blow Up” or something. This moral dilemma arises at the same time Sam’s great-uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) drops by to deliver a pep talk about how art and family don’t mix — one of those one-scene wonders, like Bradley Cooper in “Licorice Pizza,” that leaves an indelible impression. The next thing we know, the Fabelmans are moving again, abandoning honorary uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen) in Arizona, only to reconnect with cranky grandma Hadassah (Jeannie Berlin) once they reach California.
Moving is never easy for kids, but it’s often hardest when it happens during senior year, as Sam experiences it. Until now, Spielberg hasn’t shared much of the lad’s school life, but for the next hour or so, “The Fabelmans” follows Sam to class. Imagine a cross between George Lucas’ nostalgia-tastic “American Graffiti” and the slightly cartoonish, Spielberg-produced “Back to the Future.” At his new California high school, Sam is bullied by letterman jocks who give him grief for being a Jew; he falls in shallow love with a rich Christian girl named Monica (Chloe East); and he realizes something remarkable about the power of film to influence audiences — a superpower he promises to keep secret, “unless I make a movie about it” one day, Sam says, earning the film’s biggest laugh.
For years, Spielberg very publicly held his father responsible for the breakup of his parents’ marriage, but “The Fabelmans” paints a very different picture. Nineteen-year-old newcomer LaBelle is fine as Sam, although Spielberg has had such a great track record with young actors (Henry Thomas, Haley Joel Osment, Tye Sheridan) that this choice feels a bit flat. He’s clearly more focused on doing right by his parents, going out of his way to give Williams the great acting opportunities: a delirious late-night dance, multiple piano recitals and a mother-son reconciliation scene where she tells the boy (whose father has never approved of his “hobby”), “You do what your heart says you have to so you don’t owe anyone your life.”
Analyzing Spielberg’s other movies, one gets the sense that he’s been hiding the facts of his own upbringing behind fictional families. Ironically, the way they’re presented, the Fabelmans actually feel quite “normal” — even Norman Rockwell-esque — appearing in an almost Capra-like light. To that end, Kaminski’s conservative, slightly artificial way of shooting this picture borrows from midcentury domestic dramas. Were Arthur and Leah Spielberg (to whom the film is dedicated) really as traditional as they appear here, or in making “The Fabelmans,” could he not resist bending the reality closer to the kind of functional nuclear family he’s been idealizing all along?