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See how a young Steven Spielberg fell in love with film in 'The Fabelmans'

Young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) experiences the magic of the movies with his parents (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams) in <em>The Fabelmans</em>.
Universal Pictures
Young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) experiences the magic of the movies with his parents (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams) in The Fabelmans.

Steven Spielberg has never been shy about weaving elements of his family history into his movies. He's spoken in interviews about how his Dad's World War II stories shaped 1941 and Saving Private Ryan, and how E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind grew out of the pain of his parents' divorce.

Now, at 75, Spielberg places that divorce front and center in The Fabelmans, along with many other details from his childhood and teenage years. It's his fourth collaboration with the playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner, and for the first time, the two share a writing credit. The movie is funny, melancholy and altogether marvelous. And if its portrait of a young filmmaking prodigy verges on self-congratulatory, that's easily forgiven, considering who that prodigy grew up to be. In the movie, his name is Sammy Fabelman, and we first meet him as a young kid in 1950s New Jersey. From the moment his parents take him to see Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth, he's hooked and he knows he's found his life's calling.

Shooting in gorgeously immersive long takes with his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, Spielberg lovingly recreates his early moviemaking memories. We see Sammy shooting monster movies with his younger sisters, using ketchup as fake blood. Later, as a teenager in the early '60s, Sammy, played by the appealing Gabriel LaBelle, will direct a few terrific short films, including a Western and a war picture.

Moviemaking provides Sammy with some stability amid the upheaval of his family life. His kind-hearted father, Burt, played with aching restraint by Paul Dano, is an electrical engineer whose work in the burgeoning computer industry keeps him and the family on the move, relocating over the years from New Jersey to Phoenix, Ariz., to Northern California.

All this change takes a heavy toll on Sammy's free-spirited mother, Mitzi, played by Michelle Williams in an emotionally vibrant and ultimately devastating performance. Williams shows us Mitzi's radiance and her restlessness, and also her deep regret at having sacrificed a career as a concert pianist in order to raise her family. Mitzi urges Sammy to follow his filmmaking dreams. A close family friend, Bennie, played by Seth Rogen, proves just as encouraging. But Sammy's father wishes he would do something more practical, like computing or engineering.

This tension is brilliantly articulated by Sammy's great-uncle Boris, who drops by one day for an unexpected visit. Played by a wonderful Judd Hirsch, Boris, a former circus performer and silent-film actor, tells Sammy about the cost of pursuing a life in the arts, warning, "Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on Earth, but also, it will tear your heart out. Art is no game! Art is dangerous as a lion's mouth. It'll bite your head off."

Sammy loves making movies, in part, because it grants him the illusion of control. As he shoots with an 8-millimeter camera and cuts scenes together by hand, he discovers that he can bend reality to his will and even work through his fears and insecurities. That feels like a remarkably honest confession coming from Spielberg, who's often been taken to task by critics for being overly manipulative, for indulging in easy sentimentality and avoiding tougher questions.

But what makes The Fabelmans so affecting is that it knows there's more to movies than make-believe. In time, Sammy learns that a camera can see things that the human eye misses, that it can expose painful secrets. One summer, he films a family camping trip and what happens next has serious repercussions for his parents and siblings. Spielberg unpacks these revelations in a nearly wordless sequence that ranks among the most lyrical filmmaking of his career. It's wrenching to see his young alter ego reckon with the truth of who his parents are, learn to forgive them and embrace the good that they've both instilled in him.

As sad as its portrait of family can be, The Fabelmans is also Spielberg's funniest movie in some time; it has a winningly rambunctious spirit.

As sad as its portrait of family can be, The Fabelmans is also Spielberg's funniest movie in some time; it has a winningly rambunctious spirit. Sure, there are some overly broad comic moments at Sammy's high school, where he experiences first love and butts heads with anti-Semitic jocks, but even these scenes prove irresistible. It's just as satisfying here as it is in other Spielberg movies like Duel and Raiders of the Lost Ark to see bullies get their comeuppance. It's also satisfying to see young Sammy come face-to-face with one of his personal cinematic heroes in a moment that's simply too good to spoil.

Did it all really happen this way? It's doubtful; like all great storytellers, Spielberg knows the value of artifice and embellishment. But again and again in The Fabelmans, he uses his dazzling command of the medium to arrive at startling new depths of emotional truth.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.