Spielberg directs his own origin story

A young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) is introduced to cinema by his parents, Bert and Mitzi (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams). (Photos by Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment)

By Richard Ades

If you ever wondered how Steven Spielberg became a cinematic wizard, your curiosity should be partially satisfied by his new semiautobiographical film, The Fabelmans.

Assuming the tale is to be believed, Spielberg owes his fascination with movies to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 blockbuster, The Greatest Show on Earth. His fictitious stand-in, a boy named Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord), sees the flick only after being dragged to the theater by his parents. Even so, he finds himself transfixed by the experience.

Sammy seems especially awed by the movie’s giant train crash—so much so that he asks for a model train set for Hannukah just so he can engineer a miniature crash of his own. The resulting damage to his expensive toy angers his father, Burt (Paul Dano).

On the other hand, his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), theorizes that Sammy had to recreate the chaos in order to feel it was under his control. Secretly, she urges him to borrow his father’s movie camera so that he can capture the crash on film and watch it over and over.

This sets up a pattern that continues throughout: Burt, a practical-minded computer scientist, doesn’t understand Sammy or his growing devotion to moviemaking, which he dismisses as a mere “hobby.” But Mitzi, a gifted pianist, has an innate appreciation for her artistically minded son.

Unfortunately, the incident also sets up the pattern of characters speaking in baldly descriptive and psychologically tinged terms. Even though Tony Kushner co-wrote the script with Spielberg, it lacks the finesse he brought to earlier Spielberg works such as Lincoln and last year’s West Side Story remake.

High school classmate Monica Sherwood (Chloe East) tries to convert Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) to Christianity.

Partially making up for the script’s heavy-handedness are committed performances by all involved, including Dano and Williams as the parents, Francis-DeFord as young Sammy, Gabriel LaBelle as a teenage Sammy in later scenes, and Seth Rogen as Paul’s best friend and co-worker. And the literary clunkiness all but disappears when Judd Hirsch breezes in for a cameo as a film aficionado who fully understands Sammy’s compulsion to make movies. Hirsch’s brief appearance is so memorable that Oscar buzz is inevitable.  

Sammy’s devotion to moviemaking grows amid a series of challenges, such as the antisemitism he faces after his father moves the family to a new home in northern California. This has painful consequences, but also amusing ones when an amorous classmate (Chloe East) takes it on herself to convert him to Christianity.

More devastating is the growing tension between his parents, leading to a painful discovery Sammy makes with the help of his beloved “hobby.” The experience nearly causes him to put his movie gear away for good.

But, of course, we know he won’t, because his real-life alter ego grew up to be one of the world’s most successful directors. For those who have long admired Spielberg’s work, The Fabelmans offers an interesting, if imperfect, glimpse at the forces that helped to shape him.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Fabelmans (PG-13) is available in theaters nationwide.

Author: Richard Ades

Richard Ades was the arts editor of The Other Paper, a weekly news-and-entertainment publication, from 2008 until it was shut down on Jan. 31, 2013. He also served as TOP's theater critic throughout its 22-year existence.

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