Imperfect yet engrossing, the legendary director’s newest film bravely gives us the tale of his formative years.

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As we’d expect from a master storyteller like Steven Spielberg, he expertly sets the table right at the start of his autobiographical film, The Fabelmans. His family is American, yet different. They’re nurturing, but decidedly nontraditional.. And movies, and their creation, will be the prism through which his proxy Sammy views the world, comprehends it, and molds it more to his liking.

It doesn’t get any more American than The Fabelmans’ opening, as Sammy stands in line with his parents to see his very first movie in 1952. Fittingly for a director in love with spectacle, it’s Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth.

Yet, as Sammy, his mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams), and his dad Burt (Paul Dano) drive home, their home is the only one not aglow with Christmas lights. The reason is made clear a couple of scenes later, as the Fabelmans light the season’s first Hanukah candle.

Haunted by a train collision in DeMille’s film, Sammy obsessively recreates it with his family’s home movie equipment and a Lionel train set. This foreshadows how Sammy/Spielberg would later use moviemaking to work through his life’s defining traumatic events. A celluloid Cognitive Processing Therapy, if you will.

Spielberg has long delivered tales of nuclear families threatened by dissolution and of kids facing crises alone. I’m glad he found the courage to peel away the fictional artifice and turn the camera upon himself.

We observe that Sammy’s parents dote on each other, yet are utterly different in temperament and interests. Burt is the disciplinarian, stern as he deems it necessary. A pioneering computer engineer, he lives in the realm of science, delivering long-winded lectures at the dinner table. If there’s a gene for technical excellence, as Sammy begins to edit his ever more complicated movies, he clearly inherited it from Dad.

By contrast, Mitzi is a conspiratorial peer to the kids, mercurial verging on bipolar. A phenomenal pianist whose professional dreams were smothered by her mom, she lives in music and dance. She bestowed the artistic vision gene to her son.

A permanent fixture in the Fabelman household is Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen, initially unrecognizable without his curly locks). Not a blood relation, but Burt’s co-worker and best friend, he sometimes lives with the family. As the film progresses, we perceive a mutual infatuation between him and Mitzi that threatens to rupture the family.

As someone who’s old enough to have followed most of Spielberg’s career in real time, it’s fun to play “spot the Spielbergian tropes” in Sammy’s early films. He and his Boy Scout buddies, bicycling around town like the kids from E.T. Blond, antisemitic classmates as forerunners to the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark. A survivor of battlefield carnage, an early version of Private Ryan.

Unfortunately, the tone of The Fabelmans feels off at times, the performances artificially spirited, the setting overly sunny. For a domestic drama, it’s too much Indiana Jones, not enough Lincoln.

Fortunately, these tonal dissonances settle down as the story progresses. Michelle Williams nears the heights of her best performances in films like Blue Valentine, Brokeback Mountain, and Manchester by the Sea. Mitzi’s emotional fluctuations, conveyed so exquisitely, confirm Williams as one of the great actors working today. Her character is sympathetic in her maternal love, admixed with quiet desperation over her domestication.

As teenaged Sammy, this is Gabriel LaBelle’s first major role, and I hope it’s a breakthrough for him. LaBelle convincingly braves the slings and arrows of adolescence, though high school bullying, bashfulness and first love, and the fracturing of his parents’ marriage.

With a script co-written by Tony Kushner, crafter of the screenplays for Spielberg’s terrific West Side Story and Lincoln, we’re given a brisk, engrossing narrative. Though it doesn’t attain the heights of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, the definitive director’s coming-of-age story, it’s essential viewing for anyone who’s followed Spielberg’s career. (And it’s furnished the opportunity for perhaps his most thoughtful interviews ever.)

Since 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, up to 2018’s Ready Player One, Spielberg has delivered tales of nuclear families threatened by dissolution and of kids facing crises alone. I’m glad he found the courage to peel away the fictional artifice and turn the camera upon himself, his family, and his formation.

Across the course of The Fabelmans, we observe Sammy using filmmaking for self-discovery, for the sublimation of distressing emotions, and to document the exuberance and tragedy of human existence. Naturally, these have been key aspects of Spielberg’s filmography. And aren’t these the reasons we viewers submerge ourselves in the best cinematic creations, too?

(The Fabelmans is now playing in theaters.)

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SECULAR CINEPHILE Movies have been a lifelong consuming passion, with vivid childhood memories of staying up late for James Bond on TV and standing in line for the original Star Wars movie. I still...