“The Fablemans” is part memoir, part domestic drama, and part ode to the magic of cinema. Or to put it another way: It’s a Steven Spielberg movie. Throughout his illustrious career, Spielberg’s real-life childhood has been the foundational theme of his artistry. Divorce is common in his stories. Many of his films feature a late scene of familial reconciliation that their stories don’t really need. He clearly does. The director once accused of having a Peter Pan complex even made an actual Peter Pan movie, 1991’s Hook, but he’s never created anything as nakedly autobiographical as “The Fabelmans,” his own slightly fictionalized coming-of-age story and a lesson in how cinema can both ruin and save your life.
The film opens with young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) being taken by his parents to his first movie, a big-screen showing of the 1952 circus drama “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Cut to a few months later and young Sammy, having been gifted a model train for Hanukkah, recreates its thrilling train crash sequence in his basement with a home movie camera. “He’s trying to get control over it,” his mother says, which explains the whole movie. But he’s also going through the universal process of becoming an artist: First you copy the art you like, then you start copying life.
Eventually, life starts to happen to him. “The Fabelmans” tracks Sammy’s growing awareness of the strange dynamics within his own family: his father Burt (Paul Dano), a genius-level engineer, and his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), who has both the soul of an artist and a nervous temperament that holds her back from happiness. There are also two uncle figures, Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), who offers Sammy (played winningly as a teenager by Gabrielle LaBelle) some essential wisdom on the inexorable tension between art and life, and “Uncle” Benny (Seth Rogen), Burt’s coworker and best friend who spends more time with the family than seems normal. Sammy takes these complex dynamics for granted, but his budding interest in cinema gives him a new lens with which to view it. His camera sees painful family secrets that no human eye can spot.
The film’s parallel tracks—the dissolution of the Fabelman family and Sammy’s burgeoning passion for cinema—only intersect at a few key moments, but it hardly matters when every sequence is rendered with so much care. The domestic drama satisfies in a familiar way, brought to life by brilliant casting and perceptive performances. Michelle Williams nails the mannerisms of a ‘60s housewife, but with suppressed passion emerging out of every crack. Dano, known for his eccentric roles, responds with a learned submissiveness, as a genius forced to play second fiddle in his home.
Another way to look at “The Fabelmans” is as a superhero origin story, a myth of how a young Jewish boy from Arizona grew up to be one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation. The director’s love of movies is made manifest in ways both practical and spiritual, from the painstaking portrayal of film being spliced together on Sammy’s rudimentary editing machine to the way LaBelle’s eyes slowly recede; as his love of film grows, he begins to become a professional observer. We’re watching the birth of a director, and we should be merciful that Spielberg was wise enough not to include any obvious Easter eggs for his later films; a tackier version of this film would include a moment at an aquarium with young Spielberg staring at a shark and imagining the possibilities.
Still, there are moments that aren’t that far off. The very fact that Spielberg’s childhood has been a known subtext in so many of his works, from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” to “Catch Me If You Can,” inspires us to make those comparisons. After making his childhood bully break down in tears, Sammy promises not to expose the boy’s vulnerability. “Unless,” he grins, “I make a movie about it someday.” Inserting metatext into a memoir is risky, but Spielberg is one of the few artists able to pull it off. You can always sense his presence behind the camera, even when telling stories about dinosaurs gone wild or aliens trying to wipe out humanity. It would be false of him to remove that element just because this story is about himself.
Spielberg claims “The Fabelmans” isn’t his last film, but it feels like a summation. Maybe the changing tides of the industry will prevent him from making films as he’d like to for much longer, or maybe it’s just that the pandemic left him looking inward, as it did for so many of us. His introspection, however, never causes him to stray from his lifelong artistic purpose of melding self-confession with old-fashioned entertainment. For fifty years, he has wrestled with these ideals, and the audience has been reaping the rewards. “The Fabelmans” is another gift from one of cinema’s great masters.