Steven Spielberg, this is your life.
The Hollywood legend has made coming-of-age films and biopics before, but Spielberg has never turned the camera on himself as he does for “The Fabelmans,” a portrait of the Oscar-winning director as an inspired young man.
His semi-autobiographical new movie (★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters now) flashes back to the 1950s and ’60s and Spielberg’s childhood growing up in a Jewish family. Newcomer Gabriel LaBelle amazes as teenage Spielberg, here named Sammy Fabelman, a kid whose creative world just explodes when he gets a camera in his hands while also navigating obstacles such as parental drama and antisemitic bullying that shake his confidence.
Unsurprisingly, Spielbergian wonder is sprinkled throughout the episodic “Fabelmans.” The movie starts out slow, though when the filmmaker gets to Sammy’s high school days, he finds that signature electricity so apparent in his blockbuster career.
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And it all started with a fateful night out in 1952 to see “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the first time in a movie theater for wide-eyed 6-year-old Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord). When his scientific dad Burt (Paul Dano) and musical mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) get him a train set for Hanukkah, a railroad disaster is the setting for his first movie on his dad’s camera, and his sisters soon get roped into his home-movie shenanigans.
Once the family moves from New Jersey to Arizona for Burt’s better new job, with his best friend and co-worker Bennie (Seth Rogen) in tow, Sammy’s interest has become a bit of an obsession. Mitzi wants Sammy to follow his dreams while his dad sees it as just a hobby, yet Burt’s out there helping Sammy with his Scout troop making a Western for a merit badge. Even though he’s pretty new to the thing, Sammy figures out innovative do-it-yourself ways to tell stories such as putting pinpricks in the film to create gun flashes.
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On a family camping trip with Bennie, Sammy captures an intimate moment that he wasn’t supposed to see, which begins a downward spiral. Burt gets another job in Northern California, and tensions run high in the household. Making matters worse for Sammy is trying to fit in at a new school, where he runs afoul of a mean jock (Sam Rechner) and his psycho sidekick (Oakes Fegley). While they make hateful comments about Sammy’s religion, his ultra-Christian classmate Monica (Chloe East) attempts to open the fledgling filmmaker’s heart to Jesus and romance sparks between the youngsters.
Spielberg has tackled family troubles in his prior films like “E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Catch Me If You Can,” and those past metaphors are more effective than they are here in “Fabelmans.” The complicated relationship between Burt, Mitzi and Bennie is a little nebulous, though what does work is how Spielberg depicts its effect on Sammy’s emotional well-being.
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Alongside a steady Dano and Williams, LaBelle pulls on your heartstrings as his character's filmmaking, this endeavor he adores, becomes the lens into a secret that creates a rift among his loved ones. And Judd Hirsch drops in for a small but astounding performance as Sammy’s great-Uncle Boris, who comes to town briefly yet imparts a lesson warning about the sacrificial aspects of embracing art. (There's also a fantastic cameo movie nerds will love, by a famous director playing another famous director.)
Boosted by yet another dazzling score from Spielberg’s old friend, the legendary John Williams, “Fabelmans” captures the magic of how one film can change you – the sight of young Sammy seeing an epic car crash on screen is probably a similar feeling to how many have felt watching the director’s classics over the past four decades. It may not be his best, but Spielberg still rouses like no other, with a funny, heartfelt and personal story and a meta final shot that’ll leave moviegoers with a big grin.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Fabelmans' review: Steven Spielberg tells his mostly true story