When we first meet Sammy Fabelman, he’s a little boy petrified of attending his first movie. It’s not exactly the image we’d expect to see of a character based on Steven Spielberg, one of America’s most acclaimed and prolific filmmakers. Sandwiched between his mother (Michelle Williams) and father (Paul Dano), the images of a climactic train crash in Cecil B. DeMille’s circus epic “The Greatest Show on Earth” flashes in front of his eyes and stays with him long after they leave the theater. When Sammy later insists on crashes his toy train cars, his mother encourages him to use dad’s camera to film them crashing once, so he can watch it over and over without breaking them. Making them crash satisfies Sammy’s need for control, as his mother says, and he ends up creating a movie far more involved than she expected.
This is the incident that kicks off Sammy’s drive to be a filmmaker in Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” a drama based on his own childhood growing up in Arizona, where the Fabelmans move to from New Jersey after Mr. Fabelman, a computer engineer, gets a new job. But “The Fabelmans” is less Spielberg’s ode to movies than it is a loving tribute to his parents, and the ways in which movies—particularly the act of making them and sharing them— can help us through life. The films Sammy makes (he’s played first by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord and for the bulk of the movie as a teen by Gabriel LaBelle) are the sort of stuff you’d expect from a young boy—shoot ‘‘em up westerns with his friends and gross pranks with his sisters—but we see them evolve as he grows older, becoming more complex both technologically (throughout the film, Sammy amasses better cameras and an editing machine) and thematically. But Sammy makes home movies too, capturing different moments with his family; in addition to his parents, Sammy has three sisters, played by Julia Butters, Keeley Karsten,and Sophia Kopera, and a family friend they call Uncle Benny (Seth Rogen). Spielberg (who also wrote the screenplay along with previous collaborator Tony Kushner) reigns in grand spectacle in favor of staying close to his characters, paralleling the creation of these movies with pivotal moments in their lives. A movie can make Sammy’s fragile mother, a concert pianist, happy. A movie can help him deal with anti-Semitic bullies at school. A movie can earn him a scout’s merit badge. A movie can be the catalyst to tearing his family apart. “The Fabelmans” has been referred to as Spielberg’s most personal film to date, but it isn’t just because the story is adapted from his childhood (even the costume and hairstyling of Sammy’s parents is the spitting image of Spielberg’s real mom and dad). It’s personal because reveals a belief in the intimate ways that moviemaking can shape not only the director, but those close to him.
“The Fabelmans,” as it depicts Sammy’s life on the brink of graduating high school while looking ahead to the step, moves from warm and funny moments to heart-breaking scenes of family turmoil without ever feeling hokey. The cast has chemistry that makes it easy to believe they are a real family. LaBelle is a wonderful discovery, effectively honing in on the awkwardness and anger typical of his age. Williams does most of the heavy lifting, as Mrs. Fabelman waffles between love for her family and the drive to live life for herself. It’s a role that easily could have gone south if handled with less nuance, but Williams is reliably spectacular. There are several scene-stealers in the supporting cast as well, including Chloe West as Sammy’s Jesus-loving girlfriend and Judd Hirsch, who shows up for maybe 10 minutes and runs away with the movie. And David Lynch— well, I won’t reveal who Lynch plays for those who haven’t already heard, because it’s a delightful surprise.
In fact, the ending of “The Fabelmans” is one of the most perfect finales I’ve seen in a long, long time, both a wink to the cinematic pioneers who came before Sammy and a nod to what will surely be a bright future, and one that utilizes the actual act of filmmaking in a tangible way within the story that we frankly don’t see much anymore. “The Fabelmans” easily could have been a monument to ego; even if it was, I think Spielberg is the one director who has earned that right. But rather than ground-breaking he keeps the story grounded within Sammy’s circle, just nostalgic enough but not so much that it fails to genuinely resonate. It’s too soon to speculate whether “The Fabelmans” will go down as one of the great movies in Spielberg’s canon (and the director made it clear during the Q&A that he has more movies left in him), but it is such a gift, not only to his family, but to all the people who have enjoyed his films over the years.
“The Fabelmans” will be released in theaters nationwide on November 23. Runtime: 151 minutes.