Spielberg offers a portrait of his youth in ‘The Fabelmans’

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )
Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment
Burt Fabelman (left, played by Paul Dano), son Sammy (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord), and wife Mitzi (Michelle Williams) take in a movie in “The Fabelmans,” co-written and directed by Steven Spielberg.

Steven Spielberg, arguably the most commercially successful filmmaker of all time, has made a semi-successful, semi-autobiographical movie about how it all began.

“The Fabelmans” begins in 1952, when little Sammy Fabelman’s parents take him to his first movie – Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.” We follow his progression from wide-eyed tyke to teenage wunderkind. (As a boy, he is played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord and, later, by Gabriel LaBelle). But the film is almost as much a portrait of his knockabout family as it is of Sammy. The loudest, if not the greatest, show on Earth is happening right in his own home.

Or, to be precise, his own homes. Sammy’s electrical engineer father, Burt (Paul Dano), moves his family from New Jersey to Phoenix to Northern California, and the dislocations take their toll on everybody. His wife, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a classical pianist who put aside her musical ambitions to raise Sammy and his three sisters, is particularly affected. She comes across as a free spirit whose wings have been clipped.

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With his semi-autobiographical film, “The Fabelmans,” director Steven Spielberg depicts an early life filled with turbulence and – through his passion for moviemaking – resilience.

By all rights, “The Fabelmans” should register as Spielberg’s most “personal” movie. (He co-wrote the script with Tony Kushner.) Whereas many of his other films, notably “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” touch on wayward or absent fathers, his new film barrels right into that material. And yet, Spielberg is such a supersleek craftsman that what might have been intended as a deep dive instead comes across for the most part as a sprightly gloss.

At his best, Spielberg is a great entertainer because his showmanship, without the slightest pandering, exceeds and exalts his audience’s expectations. Here that facility functions as something of a detriment. Compared with James Gray’s recent “Armageddon Time,” which also deals with a Jewish boy’s coming-of-age amid a raucous household, Spielberg’s film strikes fewer somber chords. His showmanship operates as a safety net.

There are still pleasures to be had watching him chart, in the guise of Sammy, his own burgeoning love of moviemaking. 

What most impresses Sammy about that DeMille film is its massive train wreck sequence, which he re-creates with a toy train set in his basement and then films with a home movie camera. He enlists his sisters as actors in his dinky horror flicks, wrapping the girls in toilet paper so they look like mummies. Later, as a Boy Scout, he casts his buddies in improvised Westerns and war movies. (Many of these films are re-creations of actual early Spielberg opuses.) 

But Spielberg aims to do more than just show Sammy’s wonder-boy proficiency. He also wants us to regard the movie camera both as a truth-detector – Sammy accidentally films his mother dallying with Bennie (Seth Rogen), the family’s close friend – and as a portal into the beauty of life itself. For Sammy, movies act as a refuge, especially from his bickering parents and, later, from the antisemitic bullies in his California high school. (They call him Bagelman.) The problem is, as smoothly enjoyable as “The Fabelmans” often is, there’s very little movie magic to be had in it. “E.T.,” with its pure delight in the transcendent joys of fantasy, is a more “personal” work.

It’s clear from this film that Spielberg sees himself, as perhaps many of us do, as a composite of one’s parents – in his case, the artist and the engineer. Both, in their way, are dreamers. But, as LaBelle plays him, Sammy seems more of a stand-in for Spielberg than a full-fledged character. And Williams, though she gives it her all, can’t quite make sense of Mitzi, perhaps because Spielberg can’t either. I wondered why we never see any real bitterness in her toward her children for the career she likely sacrificed for them.

The surprise is that, remarkably, despite all these faults, and despite Spielberg’s legendary reputation, “The Fabelmans” never seems self-serving. It’s a humble self-portrait, and the humility is most welcome. 

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “The Fabelmans” is rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence, and drug use. 

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