Penned by Spielberg and his best screenplay collaborator, Tony Kushner, “The Fabelmans” gets off to a rather rocky start. After a lovely scene where a young Sammy, our Spielberg avatar (played as a younger child by Mateo Zoryna Francis-Deford), sees his first movie on the big screen — “The Greatest Show on Earth” — and comes away awed and afraid, the film grows rather abrasive. Sammy’s home life is loving but chaotic, and everyone, especially his sisters, seems to be screaming all the time. This is one of my most anticipated films of the year, and I found myself overcome with a sense of unease during these early scenes, worried that Spielberg had missed a step. Thankfully, “The Fabelmans” eventually finds its groove, because of course it does. I should probably be ashamed for doubting the maestro. Sorry, Steve.
Sammy’s father Burt (Paul Dano, who radiates a calm charm here) is loving but a workaholic frequently away from home, working on cutting-edge computer technology with his longtime friend Bennie (Seth Rogen). Burt is scientific and analytical, but Sammy’s mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) is what you’d call a free spirit. Like Sammy, she’s an artist — she plays piano, and dreamed of doing it professionally before having children. It’s clear that part of “The Fabelmans” is meant to be a love letter to Spielberg’s mother, but Williams’ performance never really clicked with me, even though I regard her as a remarkable actor. Mitzi’s alcoholism is hinted at, and her frequently troubled mental state is highlighted. But Williams decides to play the role to the hilt, going huge, guffawing and falling into hysterics over things that aren’t particularly funny. Intentional or not, it grates on the nerves a bit.
But the film finds its footing once Sammy has grown into a teenager, played by Gabriel LaBelle, who is immensely likable here, so much so that I hope he works with Spielberg again. Sammy is obsessed with making movies, and he does so frequently, using his father’s camera and his friends as extras, and creating bigger and more elaborate movies as he gets better and better at it all. All of these early childhood films on display here are direct recreations of films the young Spielberg made himself, and it’s a joy to watch the filmmaker resurrect his youthful work. He’s reliving his childhood, and bringing us along with him. And it’s not a disagreeable journey at all.