Steven Spielberg has spent his entire career channeling the heartache of his childhood into movies. He’s never really hesitated to admit as much, confessing publicly to the autobiographical elements woven through sensitive sensations like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Catch Me If You Can, and especially his now 40-year-old E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, an all-ages, all-time smash that welcomed the world into the melancholy of his broken home via the friendship between a sad, lonely kid and a new friend from the stars. By now, all of that baggage is inextricable from the mythology of Hollywood’s most beloved hitmaker: It’s conventional wisdom that Spielberg’s talent for replicating the awe and terror of childhood comes from the way that his own has continued to weigh, more than half a century later, on his heart and mind.
With his new coming-of-age drama The Fabelmans, Spielberg drops all but the barest pretense of artificial distance between his work and those experiences. Co-written with Tony Kushner, the great playwright who’s scripted some of the director’s recent forays into the American past (including last year’s luminous West Side Story), the film tells the very lightly fictionalized tale of an idealistic kid from a Jewish family, growing up in the American Southwest, falling in love with the cinema as his parents fall out of love with each other. Every scene of the film feels plucked from the nickelodeon of Spielberg’s memories. It’s the big-screen memoir as a twinkly-tragic spectacle of therapeutic exorcism.
Spanning from the early 1950s until the late 1960s, The Fabelmans dramatizes nearly the entire adolescence of its filmmaker — beginning, naturally, with what may be his first memory of going to the movies, a formative viewing of The Greatest Show on Earth. Terrified by the film’s images of a train violently derailing, young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) eventually recreates the scene with his own model locomotive, wrecking it to purge his lingering fear. “He’s trying to get some sort of control over it,” his mother, former pianist Mitzi (Michelle Williams), explains to his father, computer engineer Burt (The Batman‘s Paul Dano) — a line that might just about sum up the intentions of The Fabelmans itself.
Spielberg will follow Sammy and the rest of the Fabelmans family, including the boy’s two younger sisters, from New Jersey to the suburbs of Phoenix to California, and across a decade-plus of domestic conflict. The drama shifts between two frequently intersecting tracks. We watch as Sammy slowly develops as a budding filmmaker, learning the tricks of the trade through increasingly elaborate amateur productions (including a Western and the legendary 40-minute war movie of his youth, Escape from Nowhere). At the same time, the kid watches from the sidelines as his parents grow apart. Much of the tension between them derives from the presence of a third figure in their marriage: Burt’s coworker and close family friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), whose relationship with Mitzi is clearly more than just strictly platonic.
So much of The Fabelmans seems drawn from direct memories, Spielberg lingering on details too specific to be invented. The crinkle of a paper tablecloth, the gentle pulse on the neck of Sammy’s dying grandmother, the tough-love wisdom of Sammy’s uncle (Judd Hirsch, nearly stealing the movie in one terrific scene) — these are moments out of time, immortalized in the glow of Janusz Kamiński’s typically heavenly cinematography. There’s an episodic quality to the plotting; Kushner and Spielberg stringing together snapshots of mid-century minutiae into the drama of a variably wrenching and sappy effect. Eventually, The Fabelmans slides into the high-school years, with Sammy (now played by Gabriel LaBelle, in a wonderful breakout performance) coping with anti-Semitism in ’60s California and wooing a pretty Catholic classmate (Chloe East).
For all the zest he’s brought to Spielberg’s work over the past decade-plus, Kushner can’t disguise the therapeutic thrust of this movie, which sometimes seeps into the dialogue and into particular seminal conversations. Often, it feels like characters are speaking the essential truths of Spielberg’s life aloud, or maybe saying the things he wishes they had said then to make sense of all this earlier. Are we seeing how he really remembers those moments, or is this the savvy mainstream storyteller in him grabbing the wheel, underlining his big ideas for the cheap seats? The Fabelmans opens with arguably its most transparently thematic scene, as Burt explains to his child the phenomenon of persistence of vision, while Mitzi simply tells him that “movies are dreams.” We’re meant to understand Sammy (and, by extension, Spielberg) as a product of both adults. Her sense of magic and his pragmatism combined to create the crowd-pleasing director of legend.
The Fabelmans is touching, but it isn’t the grand heartbreaker you might want or expect. At times, it feels about as immersive as a snow globe. Spielberg has encased his memories in such a thick coating of reverence, like the mosquito trapped in amber in Jurassic Park, that we can’t exactly step inside them, only gawk in wonder from a distance. The irony is that moving closer to these real events might somehow have decreased our proximity to them. The Fabelmans is plainly Spielberg’s most personal movie — it’s his story, barely embellished — but it doesn’t pull us into his emotions the way the less literal E.T. did.
Nonetheless, the film grows up with Sammy, generally becoming more nuanced and vulnerable as it progresses. It’s at its best, and most haunting, when examining the relationship between Spielberg’s parents. Williams and Dano deliver an indelible study in parental contrast, helping us (and maybe the director) understand the cracks of incompatibility that form between their characters. These scenes sit, poignantly, on an intersection of perspective, somehow managing to simultaneously suggest a boy’s raw adolescent response to his parents’ impending divorce and the wisdom on the matter only hindsight can provide. There’s a truly incredible sequence where Sammy figures out what’s happening between his mother and Bennie by poring over footage of a recent camping trip and studying the emotional vagaries of the people in the frames. It’s at once a personal and an artistic discovery: Movies can tell the truth, and sometimes tell you more than you want to know.
By the end, when Spielberg builds to a meeting with a childhood hero (a very funny cameo that does feel a little like it belongs to a different movie) and succumbs to the familiar urge to lift spirits, The Fabelmans has taken on the romantic scale of an origin story: This, we’re told at last, is what made the man behind Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark and numerous other cinematic flags planted in the pop-culture imagination. What lingers, though, is the sense that the messy emotions of an upbringing have been squashed into another ode to the power of the movies: One man’s personal artistic awakening converted into a multiplex tearjerker, as bright but diffuse as the light putting it before us.
The Fabelmans opens in select theaters November 11. Our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival continues all week. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.