That sheen can’t help but be tenderly reassuring: As Spielberg seems to be saying throughout this chronicle of his early years, look at what those years produced! Here, the audience he’s courted so assiduously throughout his career finally gets to peek behind the curtain at the angst, confusion and subsurface chaos that governed the childhood Spielberg has been contemplating, reinventing and mythologizing ever since.
“The Fabelmans” begins in 1952, when young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) is growing up with his parents Burt (Paul Dano), an engineer, and Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a former piano prodigy whose concert career was cut short when she became a mother. The cardinal theme of “The Fabelmans” — co-written by Spielberg and frequent collaborator Tony Kushner — is how Burt’s technical preoccupations and Mitzi’s artistic ambitions informed Spielberg’s sensibility, one that has so famously fused gear-head innovation, gleeful mayhem and manipulative emotionalism.
When Burt and Mitzi take Sammy to “The Greatest Show on Earth,” he’s terrified at first (“Dreams are scary”); his father patiently explains the concept of persistence of vision, literally breaking an otherwise mysterious medium down to its physiological elements. Later, Sammy will studiously try to reenact the train crash that so fascinates and repels him. Cinema becomes Sammy’s way of taming his fears and, later, exerting control over dynamics that threaten to dismantle not just his family but his sense of self.
Those dynamics mostly center on Mitzi, a temperamental, mercurial creature played by Williams as if channeling Ruth Gordon and Judy Garland; she’s an outsize figure who has obviously loomed large in Spielberg’s consciousness, for good and, if not ill, at least profound ambivalence. Mitzi is a figure of empowerment — she’s the one who gives him his first camera to manage his creeping anxieties — but also of insecurity. When she hears about a tornado making its way to their New Jersey town, she bundles the kids into the car and drives straight for it.
Mitzi’s combination of exuberance and impulsiveness will have more serious consequences down the road, when the family moves to Arizona and eventually California, and when her relationship with Burt’s best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) inadvertently — and literally — comes into focus for Sammy while he’s filming a family outing. Meanwhile, he’s learning that the movies he stages more and more elaborately exert a mystical power over their audience, especially Mitzi. The most memorable moment of “The Fabelmans” features Judd Hirsch in a scene-stealing performance as Sammy’s Uncle Boris, who urges his nephew to cheer his mother up by way of a new film. (“We’re meshuga for art,” Boris says, explaining Mitzi’s dashed creative dreams.) Spielberg fans can almost see the trajectory that lies ahead, during which Spielberg — trying to heal his own primal wound — will refine the art of anticipating the audience’s needs and catering to them with obsessive, sometimes patronizing care.
As warmhearted and revelatory as “The Fabelmans” is during these early years, it loses some of its spiky specificity once Sammy gets to high school (here he’s played by Gabriel LaBelle), where he experiences antisemitism overlaid with adolescent cruelty. A subplot involving a devoutly Christian girlfriend is broad and tonally generic, as if it’s been lifted from a Barry Levinson outline; the bullies who give Sammy grief feel similarly one-dimensional and reductive. At one point, someone notes that the Fabelmans’ move to northern California is like being “parachuted into the land of the giant sequoia people,” and that’s too often how the high school scenes play.
Far more effective are the re-creations of Sammy’s earliest cinematic efforts, when he learns the rudiments of staging, filming and editing, and gains confidence ordering his Boy Scout troop to play dead. By the time he’s in high school, he’s showing signs of the Spielberg we’ve come to know and revere: someone who seems to intuit our secrets, who uses art to entertain but also create aesthetic distance from pain, whose ultimate audience — his fiercely supportive, confounding mother — is never far from his mind.
“The Fabelmans” joins a batch of recent autobiographical movies chronicling not just creative journeys, but the moral ones: Like “Belfast” and “Armageddon Time,” “The Fabelmans” is at its most effective — enthralling, even — when it gives life to the complicated business of making sense of the world and one’s tiny yet consequential place in it. From an early age, Spielberg is telling us, he’s understood cinema’s power to entertain, immerse, inform and transport, and as a way to create a usable past. “The Fabelmans” does it all, with an expansive spirit and that quintessential Spielbergian combination of honesty and sentiment. It tells the truth, at a honeyed, ameliorating slant.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some strong language, mature thematic elements, brief violence and drug use. 151 minutes.