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'The Fabelmans' review: Empire of the son

Steven Spielberg looks back in this sort-of biopic about how a young filmmaker found his voice.

A filmmaking superhero shares his origin story in "The Fabelmans," director Steven Spielberg's patchy coming of age drama about how a young filmmaker named Sam Fabelman came to pick up a camera and start making movies.

Sam Fabelman is Spielberg's stand-in for himself, and "The Fabelmans" comes alive whenever it deals with the power of movies and the young director finding his voice behind the camera. Less compelling is the milquetoast family drama that surrounds it, which is no less important to Spielberg's story but isn't presented with the same zip as the scenes where the Sam character is tinkering with and figuring out his craft. Spielberg is perhaps the most commercially successful filmmaker of all-time but he's never been the most personal storyteller, and "The Fabelmans" helps spell out why that may be.

"Fabelmans" opens with a young Sam (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) standing outside a New Jersey movie theater, frightened of what awaits him. It's 1952, and his parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) are taking him to his first movie, "The Greatest Show on Earth," and they're trying to convince him of the wonderment that lies just beyond the theater doors. But he doesn't want to sit in the dark and he doesn't understand the concept of moving pictures and he would rather just go home where it's safe.

But he goes in, and he's enamored by what he sees, the combination of light and sound and a packed auditorium full of people all with their eyes on the screen. He's watching a train wreck unfold (literally, not metaphorically) and he decides he needs a train set for home, so he can use his father's camera to recreate what he's seen. The first seeds of moviemaking are planted.

The family (Sam has three sisters as well) is soon uprooted to Arizona, where Burt is recruited to work in the computer business. Family friend Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen, possibly miscast) comes, too, and Sam (played as a teen by Gabriel LaBelle, who gives off big Patrick Dempsey energy) gets a new camera and an editing machine and he makes family films and Westerns with his friends, learning how to mimic the flash from gunfire by poking holes into the film itself. His creativity is alive and the film takes flight.

And then it grounds itself as it becomes a melodrama about the discord in Sam's parents' marriage, Mitzi's dalliances with Uncle Bennie and Burt's balance of his home life and work life. (It doesn't help that Dano and Williams seem to be acting in completely different movies, neither of which feel rooted in reality.) The shift is brought on by Sam, whose camera caught something he feels it shouldn't have. He's betrayed by his one true love and he shelves his hobby.

The Fabelmans are again uprooted, this time to northern California, where Sam is picked on at school and called anti-Semitic names by some of the least threatening bullies ever rendered on film. (They look like extras from Spielberg's 2021 version of "West Side Story.") His budding relationship with a classmate (Chloe East plays his deeply Christian girlfriend) marks another tonal shift, this time into outright comedy.

It's fitting that "The Fabelmans" flounders whenever Sam is not around a camera. The camera gives him an identity and a perspective and he's lost without it, and things pick up again when he's asked to make a movie of the senior class Ditch Day, and he rediscovers the power he wields as a director. It's his superpower, and he's lost without it.

For too much of "Fabelmans," that disconnect is apparent. The screenplay, by Spielberg and Tony Kushner, trades on the fact that viewers are filling in the gaps with what they already know about the man Spielberg would become. Take Spielberg out of it and it doesn't work; it's a mishmash of themes, tones and styles that can't decide which direction it's headed.

"The Fabelmans" closes with Sam's introduction to Hollywood, and the town itself is embodied by a single figure in a delicious cameo that's too good to spoil. The scene is funny, insightful and punchy, and it shows how lessons imparted from an elder can imprint themselves on one's brain and become guiding principles going forward. It's the kind of straightforward, clear and yes, personal storytelling that "The Fabelmans" could have used more of. And it shows what we've always known about Spielberg: he's at his best when he's playing with the magic of movies.

'The Fabelmans'


Rated PG-13: for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use

Running time: 151 minutes

In theaters