‘The Fabelmans’: Steven Spielberg, master of the spectacular, gets personal with a magical opus depicting a childhood like his

The director’s alter ego grows up with despairing parents, inspirational mentors and a yearning to make movies.

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Teenage Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) looks over footage in “The Fabelmans.”

Universal Pictures

Movies are dreams that you never forget.

This is what Sammy Fabelman’s mother tells him at the outset of Steven Spielberg’s magical and sprawling mid-20th century semi-autobiographical opus “The Fabelmans,” and that is what the 75-year-old Spielberg has been doing in such remarkable fashion for a half-century now: creating iconic and indelible dreams, nightmares, illusions, flights of fancy and unforgettable touchstone moments that stay with us for weeks, months, years and decades.

You don’t even have to close your eyes to conjure up memories of the shark rocketing through the water to take down the skinny-dipping girl in “Jaws,” or the arrival of the mothership in “Close Encounters,” or Elliott and E.T. in silhouette against the moon, or the first time we see the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park,” or the girl in the red coat in “Schindler’s List,” or the landing on Omaha Beach in “Saving Private Ryan,” and we could go on forever. Spielberg has chipped off pieces of his own memories to use as inspiration for dozens of his films; now, with his most personal movie ever, he tells the fictionalized story of how the young boy who grew up to make all those classic films fell in love with, became obsessed with, and found his salvation by looking at the world through the lens of his camera.

It’s as if Spielberg is taking a curtain call (though he shows no signs of slowing up) and telling us: Here is where all those movies came from. Here’s what I experienced before I could tell my stories to you.

‘The Fabelmans’


Universal Picture presents a film directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner. Rated PG-13 (for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use). Running time: 150 minutes. Opens Wednesday at local theaters.

“The Fabelmans” opens on a winter night in 1952, with young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) afraid to even go into the theater until his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) reassures him by telling him, “Movies are dreams that you never forget.” Cut to Sammy safely tucked between his mother and his father Burt (Paul Dano) while gazing up in wonder at Cecil B. DeMille’s bloated spectacle, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Sammy is equal parts fascinated and terrified by the train crash at the end of the film — and before long, he’s putting together a Lionel train set in the basement and using a home movie camera to re-create the crash scene, over and over and over.

Sammy has found his calling, much to the delight of his mother, a gifted pianist who laments never having the opportunity to achieve her potential, and the consternation of his father, a genius-level computer engineer who will refer to Sammy’s love of filmmaking as a “hobby” all the way through Sammy’s late teens.


Sammy’s interest in filmmaking troubles his father (Paul Dano) but delights his mother (Michelle Williams).

Universal Pictures

The early scenes are bathed in typical Spielberg Suburbia tones, with cinematographer Janusz Kamiński creating an atmosphere of almost fantasy-film level family warmth, particularly in the dinner sequences featuring Jeannie Berlin as Burt’s blunt-speaking mother, Hadassah, and Seth Rogen’s Bennie, who works for Burt and has become a kind of surrogate uncle to Sammy and his sisters and is always ready with a joke to brighten Mitzi’s dark moods.

Sammy pours himself into his moviemaking — wrapping his sisters in toilet paper for a mummy movie, seeing “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and deciding he must make a Western — as we eventually follow the family to Arizona, with Gabriel LaBelle taking on the role of Sammy. By then, we’ve seen the signs of trouble in his parents’ marriage, with Mitzi experiencing bouts of paralyzing depression, and Burt escaping into his work as he admits he’s not equipped to handle the situation. (Williams and Dano are spectacularly good throughout.)


Seth Rogen plays Bennie, who works for Sammy’s father and becomes a kind of surrogate uncle to the boy.

Universal Pictures

A family camping trip, with Bennie along for the ride, as he always seems to be, yields some incredibly beautiful and poignant moments — and some life-shattering revelations. Along the way, Sammy’s filmmaking skills grow ever more impressive, e.g., a 40-minute war movie he shoots as a Boy Scout project that includes some signature Spielberg camera and blocking moves.

When the story moves to Northern California in the early 1960s and Sammy’s senior year in high school, there’s a little bit of a “Back to the Future” vibe to Sammy’s experiences (sans the time travel), as he finds himself bullied by not one but TWO anti-Semitic louts and enters into a sweet and funny romance with a wealthy Christian girl named Monica (Chloe East) whose efforts to convert Sammy are hilarious. (There’s also a great scene when a classmate tells Sammy he better not tell anyone about a certain thing that just happened and Sammy says he won’t, “unless I make a movie about it.”)

The episodic nature of “The Fabelmans” makes room for any number of supporting players to have showcase scenes, including Judd Hirsch as Sammy’s great-uncle Boris, who worked in the circus and the movies and recognizes in Sammy a kindred artistic spirit; Julia Butters as Sammy’s sister Reggie, who calls him out for his selfishness but clearly worships him; Sam Rechner as Logan Hall, the hunky bully who has a surprising reaction to Sammy’s “Ditch Day” movie turning him into a leading man, and David Lynch as … well, we won’t spoil it.

“The Fabelmans” begins with Sammy Fabelman’s first moviegoing experience and takes us to his first experience on a studio lot, in a scene that’s uplifting and yet deeply melancholy and really funny. Typical Spielberg. Pulling on multiple heartstrings at the same time, to great effect.

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