Among its other virtues and attributes, The Fabelmans will mark the point in cinematic history when Hollywood titan Steven Spielberg gets his revenge on evildoers in his adolescence, big-time and on the big screen. The mostly autobiographic saga of the director’s youth includes scenes of the anti-Semitic bullying Spielberg endured while in high school in Northern California with the culprits now held up to mockery and righteous comeuppance, 60 years later. In a way, Spielberg turns The Fabelmans into one of the most anti-WASP movies in recent memory. Revenge is his.
In the most inward-gazing — and navel-gazing — film of his long and varied career, Spielberg and his co-writer Tony Kushner explore the seedbed years of a populist movie machine. With Paul Dano as his scientist father and Michelle Williams (in a command performance) as his free-spirited but multiply frustrated mother, the surrogate Spielberg protagonist appears as Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), destined for a life in the movies. Sammy/Steven is hooked after being swept into the splendor of The Greatest Show on Earth and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (the John Ford connection echoes later in the film), obsessing over movie ideas and the best equipment he can wrangle.
The Fabelmans, as the title suggests, is also very much a family saga, following the clan — with three sisters in tow — as they move from suburban New Jersey to Arizona and finally Northern California, with brewing tension and a pending divorce in the mix. Spielberg delivers the story with his customary, often formulaic emotional manipulations and a skewed sense of realism he may have learned from watching too many movies. But despite its flaws, the film remains fascinating as a study of a director turning the camera on himself, and intentionally ending the narrative just before his Hollywood conquest — even before Spielberg’s classic made-for-TV movie Duel, still one of his finest films.
Whatever one makes of Spielberg’s memory-tripping spiel of a movie, Michelle Williams’s show-stealing performance and David Lynch’s ripe cameo are, by themselves, worth the price of admission.