Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans opens on a snowy day in 1952, as little Sammy Fabelman’s parents are taking him to the movies for the very first time. The picture in question is The Greatest Show on Earth, now notorious as one of the worst Best Picture winners of all time, but you can’t tell Sammy that – as a dangerous and scary train-and-car stunt plays out on the giant screen in front of him, his eyes widen and he leans forward. Luckily for Sammy, it’s almost Hanukkah, and his dad gets him a model train set, one car at a time. But that’s not enough, he tells his mother: “I need to see them crash”
The Fabelmans is the story of how a movie-crazy kid turned that need into a career, and a life. It is, of course, inspired by Spielberg’s own child- and young adulthood, following the broad strokes of his early years and the beginnings of his obsession; he co-wrote the screenplay with his frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, his first such credit since AI: Artificial Intelligence (and before that, Poltergeist). So it’s obviously very personal to him, and that sense of genuine emotion, of pathos via memoir, is beating under every scene.
And the material relating to his future career – “It’s not a hobby!” he insists, when his father mischaracterizes it as such, on multiple occasions – is some of the best stuff in the movie: his clever little hacks for SFX, locations, and lack of personnel, as well as the short films themselves, in which Spielberg finds the perfect balance between (often comically) amateurishness and genuine promise. But the film’s real subject reveals itself less obviously, when Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) gets an editing machine and starts editing home movies, discovering that he can stop, rewind, replay, and reanalyze casual moments in his real life that might otherwise pass right by.
Sammy, whose no-budget films require him to be both an innovator and a storyteller, is thus an ideal mixture of his parents’ dispositions. His father Burt (Paul Dano) is a tinkerer, an engineering genius whose career ascension keeps uprooting them (from Jersey to Arizona to California). His mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) is a dreamer, a bohemian type, a brilliant pianist who wasn’t really meant to be a housewife, and seems to constantly seek outlets for her artistic frustrations. She’s wild and earthy and impulsive, and the movie sees her quirks as her son does: initially charming, and then troubling.
And then there’s “Uncle Benny” (Seth Rogen), who really is like part of the family – he’s Burt’s best friend and right-hand man at work, while Benny and Mitzi have a specific connection of their own. One of the virtues of Spielberg and Kushner’s script is how subtly the tension between Burt and Benny, and then Burt and Mitzi, appears and reveals itself; before long, we’re watching what seems one of the screen’s most genuine and organic portraits of the dissolution of a marriage.
Unfortunately, their screenplay loses its focus – and for a not inconsiderable amount of time – when the family moves to California, Sam puts away his camera, and the primary subject becomes his inability to fit in at his new high school. It’s not that the material isn’t compelling, particularly when dredging up Spielberg’s certainly painful memories of anti-Semitism and bullying. But it feels like another movie, a far blander and more generic ‘60s high school narrative (though the strands are, eventually and inevitably, pulled back together). That said, the section gets no small lift from the performance of Chloe East as Monica, the gregarious evangelical who takes an interest in this handsome Jewish boy. She’s a very charming actor, and her scenes are a treat.
The picture occasionally falters elsewhere, and is similarly rescued by the skill of its cast. Dano poignantly captures the absolute desperation of a husband who knows the clock is ticking on his marriage; “I don’t know what else to do,” he shrugs at a key point, a moment that seems to hold the key to the entire character. Williams adroitly conveys all the character’s complexities – her sparkle, her flaws, her love, her unsteadiness – and Spielberg knows what a powerful weapon he has in just her porcelain features. Note the way he holds on her face as she watches the end of Sammy’s big war movie movie and then, in a parallel shot a few minutes later, as she watches another piece of film with far less pride.
The cast is comprised of similarly heavy hitters: Jeannie Berlin is an absolute gift, Seth Rogen nails both the affability and heartache of his character, and Judd Hirsch wanders in for just two scenes like a man who has lived a life and seen some things. It’s ultimately this manic shambles of a man who speaks the truth to his great-nephew, correctly noting that his love for film will “tear your heart and leave you lonely.”
For all of The Fabelmans’ shagginess, for the passages and plots that seem to be there simply because of their proximity to the filmmaker’s life, there are moments like this that contain an intensity and truth that one can only get in autobiographical territory. This is a filmmaker who’s never hid himself from us, but has told us about himself implicitly, through genre frameworks or other people’s stories. There’s a vulnerability to his new film in place of the sleek, tight perfectionism of his other work, and at this point in his long and distinguished career, that’s a trade-off worth making.
“The Fabelmans” is in theaters Friday.