Producers: Kristie Macosko Krieger, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner   Director: Steven Spielberg   Screenplay: Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner   Cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsch, Jeannie Berlin, Robin Bartlett, Julia Butters, Keeley Karsten, Sophia Kopera, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, Chloe East, Sam Rechner, Oakes Fegley, Birdie Borria, Alina Brace, Isabelle Kusman, Chandler Lovelle, Cooper Dodson, Gustavo Escobar, Nicolas Cantu, Gabriel Bateman, Stephen Smith, Lane Factor, Greg Grunberg, Jan Hoag, James Urbaniak and David Lynch Distributor: Universal Pictures

Grade: B+

Steven Spielberg takes a trip down memory lane in this semi-autobiographical tale of a boy’s coming-of-age—and embracing filmmaking as his great love—in a fracturing family during the fifties and sixties.  “The Fabelmans” is an episodic journey of self-discovery suffused with a nostalgic glow, but also with pangs of pain as well as bouts of joy.

Spielberg’s surrogate, in the script co-written by him and Tony Kushner, is Samuel Fabelman, who, as his surname implies, proves a born storyteller.  His medium, as sequences that bookend the picture show, is film.  In the first as a young boy (played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) in 1952 New Jersey, he’s taken to see his first movie by his parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams).  It’s Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and he’s transfixed by a scene involving a horrendous crash of two trains and a car.  The boy becomes so obsessed that he uses the electric train he receives as a Hanukkah present to restage the wreck, and an 8mm camera given him by his mother to film it.

This quasi-prologue also dramatizes the personality differences between Burt and Mitzi.  When Sammy’s scared about going into the theatre, his father, an engineer who repairs TVs and radios on the side, explains the technology behind film projection; his mother, a pianist, speaks to him in terms of dreams.  One is practical-minded, the other a romantic.

At the film’s end, Sammy (now played by Gabriel LaBelle), a high school graduate who hates college, has finally found a very entry-level position into the film business: a tentative invitation to work as an assistant’s assistant on a new TV series, “Hogan’s Heroes,” from one of the show’s creators, Bernie Fein (Greg Grunberg).  Knowing that the kid longs to be a film director, the kindly Fein arranges for him to spend a few minutes with one of his idols, John Ford (David Lynch).  After the meeting an exuberant Sammy dances onto the Paramount lot as Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski end with a charming visual joke based on the growling Ford’s advice to him.

Between these two sequences, “The Fabelmans” sketches young Sammy’s increasing ambitions as a novice filmmaker after the family moves to Phoenix, where Burt’s expertise in computer engineering has won him a job at GE.  He makes juvenile movies starring his sisters, and moves into short features starring his Boy Scout chums—a western inspired by “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and a war picture called “Escape to Nowhere” (both of which reflect titles actually made by Spielberg).  But though impressed by his son’s facility with the camera, Burt continues to consider his obsession with moviemaking a hobby he shouldn’t allow to interfere with more practical plans for the future.

On the other hand, Sammy’s grouchy grand-uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a circus bum and sometime movie actor in town to sit shivah for his late sister, perceives the drive to create art in the boy—something inherited from his mother, who might have been a concert artist—and impresses on him the tension it will cause between him and his family.

That prediction proves prescient when Sammy uses his camera at a camping trip the family takes with Burt’s best friend and co-worker “Uncle” Bennie (Seth Rogen), a jocular fellow who moved with them from Jersey to Phoenix.  In editing the footage for a family entertainment Burt hopes will ease the depression Mitzi is suffering after her mother’s death, Sammy discovers evidence of a secret that could destroy the family’s equilibrium.  And he’s right: it leads to his parents’ divorce, as well as his own decision to abandon filmmaking altogether. 

The hiatus coincides with another move, from Arizona to Northern California, where Burt has taken a position with IBM.  It proves disastrous for the family.  Mitzi grows more and more troubled and eventually leaves for the east.  And the high school experience is brutal for Sammy.  He’s targeted by anti-Semitic jocks Logan (Sam Rechner) and Chad (Oakes Fegley).  At the same time he’s pursued by Monica (Chloe East), a pretty Jesus freak who combines romance with a desire to convert him.  But although she ultimately breaks his heart, she’s responsible for encouraging him to take up the camera again to film the graduating class’ “Ditch Day” at the beach—a project that teaches him how movies can transform people, though sometimes in unexpected ways.

In the aftermath of Sammy’s graduation and failed college efforts, Burt finally accepts the inevitable, leading to the film’s epilogue on the Paramount lot.

One has to wonder about the accuracy of the film as “autobiography,” of course.  But like another superb coming-of-age memoir, James Gray’s “Armageddon Time,” Spielberg’s is filtered through the lens of a grown man’s memory, and reflects the directors’ differing perspectives—Gray’s the immigrant experience in New York City, Spielberg’s that of the American family in suburbia.  But neither man is unwilling to confront the dark side of his youth.  In both cases that includes the reality of anti-Semitism, but in Gray’s it also involves racism—a subject simply absent from Spielberg’s (if a single black face appears in “Fablemans,” it’s for so short a time that it barely registers).

Rather the darkness here is primarily domestic: the collapse of a marriage.  At first Burt and Mitzi seem mismatched, but perfectly so.  It’s only by degrees that their incompatibility grows evident, but still when the break finally comes, it does so with startling suddenness.  Of the two partners, Williams will garner the most attention, and she’s indeed remarkable, capturing the mercurial nature of this flighty, sad, troubled, but sympathetic woman without a false note.  But Dano has the more difficult task, bringing poignancy to the rigid, bespectacled, rationalistic Burt, a man dedicated to his family but also, even primarily, to his work—seeing it not only as the means of supporting the family but as validation of his own ego.  Making him as sympathetic as Mitzi even as he forces the family to follow him from state to state until they reach a place they find intolerable, denigrating Sammy’s dreams in the process, is a herculean task, but Dano pulls it off: there’s a moment late in the film, where the camera simply focuses on his face as he reacts to some photos, that’s an object lesson in masterly acting.  So while Williams has the showier role, Dano’s achievement shouldn’t be undervalued.

As for LaBelle, he makes a likable stand-in for the writer-director—even if at times he comes across as a guy who wouldn’t be out of place in an “American Pie” movie—and manages to convincingly convey Sammy’s anger over his parents’ marital problems and his high-school troubles.  As Bennie Rogen lowers his frat-boy persona to a more human level, and Hirsch, though he appears relatively briefly, proves that his old crowd-pleasing skill remains intact.  Lynch’s stint as Ford will send buffs into something close to ecstasy.

As with all of Spielberg’s work, the sheer fastidiousness of the production is as remarkable as the facility of Spielberg and Kaminski’s choreography.  Rick Carter’s production design and Mark Bridges’ costumes aren’t afraid to italicize the period detail (and the colors), and John Williams contributes a sumptuous orchestral score to support the lush images.  At times Spielberg’s penchant for overstatement leads to obviousness—the Boy Scout movie sequences don’t stint on the kids’ high spirits, and the high school bullying material is far from subtle.  Sammy’s relationship with Monica is equally broad, with East coming perilously close to mere caricature.

But despite the quibbles “The Fabelmans” is one of Spielberg’s most accessible and engaging works.  At two and a half hours it’s long, but as edited by Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn never feels so, and as it ends you’re exhilarated rather than tired, almost hoping for a second act to take the story through the director’s astonishing cinema career. 

Among the many films in which filmmakers reminisce about their work, this is one of the most approachable.  It’s inevitable that it will encourage you to reach back into Spielberg’s oeuvre and enjoy the movies (and early TV shows) that Sammy—sorry, Steven—would make.