As he approaches his 76th birthday in December, Steven Spielberg can safely be assumed to be in the “memoirs” stage of his life and celebrated career. But as a filmmaker always more comfortable with the language of cinema, it’d be a shame if he tried simply telling that story on the page.
And no mere chronology of “how I came to be” would do, either. With “The Fabelmans,” he goes for a lightly fictionalized “fable” version of the upbringing that shaped and made him, the influences, encouragements and life events that drove him to succeed.
It’s a magical movie memoir of the making of a movie-maker, with Spielbergian sparks of delight and inspiration, and heaping helpings of Spielberg sentiment. Through it, we come to understand the man who gave us so many broken or breaking families, so many plucky on-my-own kids, so many sad heart-tugging moments undercut with wit, warmth and humor.
It’s a movie-lovers night at the cinema, taking us from his “first ever movie,” his mercurial, musical Mother (Michelle Williams) passing on her enthusiasm, his pedantic engineer Dad (Paul Dano) patiently explaining the “giants” they’d see on the screen are just images captured on celluloid, projected with light and blown-up to enormous size.
From the moment six year-old Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) sees that spectacular train crash effect in “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), he is hooked. But it’s not just the train that grabbed him and caused his father to give him one railcar or locomotive or set of tracks per day during the following Chanukah.
Little Sammy liked to see things crash and blow up.
And when Mom swipes Dad’s 8mm film camera, Spielberg lets us see what makes Sammy run…to the photo shop, home from school to enlist family and friends in his little movies, to the notebook whose drawings become storyboards by the time he’s old enough for the Boy Scouts.
That Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle, a bit player in movies and in TV since 2013) is the one who uses his Phoenix, Arizona BSA Troop 275 as cast and crew in movies he’s learned to storyboard, shots he’s learned to frame, effects he’s ingeniously figured-out how to fake for silent films that have a beginning, middle and end, and a helluva lot of entertainment value.
That Sammy would be shushing his fellow girl-crazy Scouts when they get too rowdy at a theater showing “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and that Sammy will write letters and knock on Hollywood doors after high school, and in the film’s climax, meet one of his movie making idols, uncannily brought back to life by another legendary director.
“The Fabelmans'” odyssey, from New Jersey to Phoenix and California, following Dad’s career as an RCA then GE and eventually IBM electrical engineer, make up the movie’s more conventional and melodramatic middle acts.
It was a troubled marriage. The family was more observantly Jewish when the grandmothers were around, and when the holidays popped up. Grannies would show up for Mom’s elaborate dinners served on paper plates with plastic forks, all of it tossed with the paper tablecloth when the meal was over.
Mom’s musical side — she is a concert pianist who gave it all up to raise three daughters and a son — would come to the fore, singing Hebrew duets with Dad. “Uncle” Benny, Dad’s work pal (Seth Rogen) would come in and be the “fun uncle” only not a “real” uncle at these gatherings.
And Sammy’s adoring, spirited sisters would not have to be his extras and crew for once, and could lose themselves in the festivities.
Judd Hirsch comes off as a kvetching stereotype in the brief snippet he’s glimpsed in the movie’s trailer. In the film itself, he is an earthy, warm and no-nonsense “circus” (and silent film) veteran, the uncle who comes to mourn his sister, one of their grandmothers, and impresses on young Sammy the tug-of-war his life will be in the arts, yanked between family obligations and life-responsibilities, and “the heart.”
Williams turns this mother into a fragile, impulsive free spirit, piling the kids in the car to chase the first tornado any of them ever saw. Dano was born to play a prototype “computer nerd” who sees a lot of himself in his artsy but technocratic craftsman kid.
Comical young love, the first serious blasts of anti-Semitism Sammy faced in a new school, a smart-aleck who takes a bloody nose as a small price to pay for a withering comeback, this third of the film has been in a thousand other coming-of-age tales before, and often done better. Still, there’s an earnestness to these scenes that counts for something.
Tony winning playwriter (“Angels in America”) and “Munich” screenwriter Tony Kushner came on board to give this story shape, to make “The Family’s Dark Secret” pay off.
But it’s all the things that have become the director’s trademarks that lift “The Fabelmans” into Spielberg Fable status. The fractious, playful scenes with the siblings, the noisy but enthusiastic mob of Scouts needed to create a silent 8mm World War II drama “Escape to Nowhere,” the “Eureka” moments when young Sammy figures out this effect or has his first moment “directing” a performance are brimming with heart and that “gee-whiz” fun.
As for the rest, the Oscar winning icon may hint at the emotional turmoil of a home life with a somewhat manic, frustrated “artist” and the workaholic engineer who takes forever to stop calling what Sammy does with a camera, an editing table and celluloid “a hobby.”
This loving tribute to them and everything that he and they went through and how it informed his art suggests they did something very right along the way.
Rating:PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use.
Cast: Michelle Williams, Gabriel LaBelle,Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, Seth Rogen, Paul Dano and Judd Hirsch.
Credits: Directed by Steven Spielberg, scripted by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner. A Universal release.
Running time: 2:31