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Steven Spielberg makes a ‘Spielberg movie’ about Steven Spielberg — and it soars

Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord, Paul Dano, and Michelle Williams star in the director’s portrait of himself as a young man.

From left: Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord, and Michelle Williams in a scene from "The Fabelmans."Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment via AP

“The Fabelmans” is a semi-autobiographical love letter to movies written by the man who inspired more than one nostalgic ode to the cinema, Steven Spielberg. Throughout his five decades of work, Spielberg has entertained his audience, sometimes with love and, more often than not, with shock and awe. Despite complaints of how syrupy he can be, there are few directors who gleefully enjoy killing people onscreen as much as Spielberg.

Think about the disgusting crunch that accompanied Quint falling into Bruce the Shark’s mouth in “Jaws,” or those melting faces at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Sentimentality and sadism make strange bedfellows, and Spielberg has never kicked either of them out of bed.


“The Fabelmans,” in Boston theaters Nov. 23, provides an explanation for the director’s fascination with carnage. His young stand-in, Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord), is taken to the movies by his dad, Burt (Paul Dano), and mom, Mitzi (a superb, slightly too quirky Michelle Williams). They’re worried that 1952′s “The Greatest Show on Earth” may be too intense for their son. Like Cecil B. DeMille, the director of that god-awful Oscar-winning best picture, Spielberg is a maximalist showman — he puts you in young Sammy’s head courtesy of Francis-DeFord’s widening eyes reflecting DeMille’s staging of the film’s brutal, climactic train crash.

Sammy is so seduced by the movie magic inherent in this jarring violence that he asks for a Lionel train set for Hanukkah. He doesn’t tell his parents he intends to emulate what he saw onscreen. His father, a computer engineer, is horrified that his son has so little respect for an expensive toy. His mother, a classically trained pianist, hears a fellow artist’s heart beating in her son and buys him his first camera. She tells him he can stage the crash once and watch it as many times as he wants. Reality is fleeting; film is forever.


Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord in a scene from "The Fabelmans." Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment via AP

Fast forward 10 years, and Sam (now played by an excellent Gabriel LaBelle) is inspired to make a Western after seeing John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” The Fabelmans have moved to a neighborhood in Arizona that looks ripped out of “Poltergeist,” the 1982 film Spielberg co-wrote. His group of friends/co-conspirators enters the frame on bicycles, reminding us of “E.T.” The wistful score by John Williams — one of his best — makes a lovely complement to the visuals by Janusz Kaminski.

But all is not hearts and flowers. Anyone familiar with Spielberg’s work knows of his penchant for exploring divorced families. The director’s own parents split, but the screenplay by Spielberg and Tony Kushner provides a deeper reason for his consistent return to that subject. Mitzi describes her young son’s desire to restage DeMille as a way to control a chaotic situation. The camera makes Sammy Fabelman the ringmaster in his own Greatest Show on Earth.

From left: Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Keeley Karsten, Julia Butters, and Sophia Kopera in a scene from "The Fabelmans." Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment via AP

Sammy also has to deal with several instances of antisemitism in his high school. That subplot is harrowing, but not without humor, albeit of the gallows variety. Sammy’s “revenge,” such as it is, plays as a complex and fascinating delve into the mind of a future filmmaker’s philosophy about the images he creates.

This is Spielberg’s most personal film, and it’s intriguing to watch him pay homage to the directors who made up his group of friends in the early 1970s. There’s more than a bit of George Lucas in the film’s later, California-set high school scenes. The comic, religious guilt that pours out of Sammy’s Christian girlfriend, who prays to an enormous crucifix on her wall before jumping his bones, has all the mischief of Marty Scorsese.


A fantastic, extended cameo by Judd Hirsch as the bonkers Uncle Boris, a man who once worked in the circus, features some advice that sounds scripted by Francis Ford Coppola. “Art is not a game,” he scolds. “Art is like putting your hand in the lion’s mouth.”

Spielberg saves his biggest directorial nod to a friend for the heartbreaking, emotional centerpiece of “The Fabelmans.” Throughout Sammy’s life, his family has always had one extra member, Burt’s best friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen in a fine performance). Though a fellow techie, Bennie has a sense of humor and demeanor that align more with Mitzi’s personality than Burt’s. While editing footage from a camping trip, Sammy discovers just how close these two are. Spielberg reveals this devastating truth using a recognizable Brian De Palma technique: a series of visual cycles that expose more truth with each repetition.

Seth Rogen in a scene from "The Fabelmans."(Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment via AP)

“The Fabelmans” ends with a cameo by John Ford, embodied here by a very funny David Lynch. Spielberg’s own career proves that he followed the real-life advice “Pappy” Ford gave him the day they met. His latest film follows the advice of that Ford Western that Sammy saw: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”


What a fine legend it is.



Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner. Starring Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle, Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord, Judd Hirsch, and David Lynch. At AMC Boston Common 19, Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and suburbs. 151 min., PG-13 (F-bombs, slurs, violence, DeMille-ready close-ups)

Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.