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MOVIE REVIEW ‘The Fabelmans’: Steven Spielberg Turns the Camera on His Deepest, Scariest Subject: His Childhood

Hollywood’s great escapist finally tackles his formative years, and delivers an incredible drama about th ties that bind, the moments that define an artist and the power of the movies.

THE LITTLE BOY is scared. There’s such a large crowd outside the theater. He has no idea what will happen when he walks through the doors and into the room filled with dozens of seats, all facing a large blank square.

Plus it’s in the dark. He’s been told that there are giants in there, though his dad gently corrects him; the people are normal-sized, they’re just on a big screen.

It’s 1952, Sammy Fabelman is six years old, his parents have taken him to see his first movie — Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth — and he’s about to have his mind blown.

After Watching Trains Colliding With Each Other On That Larger-than-life Canvas, He Spends The Entire Ride Home In A State Of Shock.

He’s left the real world behind. He’s officially entered the world of dreams.

This is how Steven Spielberg introduces us to the pint-sized hero of The Fabelmans played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, another one of the filmmaker’s many underage characters to gaze up at the world in wonder and awe.

This child is distinguished from the Elliot Taylors and Barry Guilers and Short Rounds of his back catalog, however, by one key factor. Sammy is Steven in all but name.

Like Spielberg, this New Jersey kid will graduate from simply crashing toy trains to filming his head-on Lionel locomotive collisions, all the better to control the chaos and replay it over and over again.

Sammy, too, will eventually graduate to what Orson Welles once called the biggest electric train set a boy ever had, filming ambitious Westerns and war epics with his sisters and fellow boy scouts in the desert, always going back to the local moviehouse to stare at the giants on the screen, to chase that original high.

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And Like The Director, Sammy Fabelman Will Also Get Uprooted From The Garden State To Phoenix, Arizona — “It’s A City On The Rise!” His Dad Exclaims — And Watch His Family Begin To Slowly Fall Apart.

He will feel frustrated and betrayed by the world of adults, taking refuge in seeing the world through a lens, of being the one to call the shots and then definitively yell “Cut.”

In a movie, you can edit out the evidence that something bad has occurred right under your nose, snip out the scenes of a crime as if they never happened at all. You can’t do that with real life.

Later, the teen Sammy (now played by Gabriel LaBelle) will be forced to move with his family yet again, this time to Northern California, where his high school years will similarly be filled with angst, anti-Semitism, hormones (sort of), bloodied noses, heartbreak.

And the movies. Always the movies. His dad Burt (Paul Dano), a computer engineer, keeps calling it Sammy’s “hobby.” Unlike Sammy’s mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a musician, the man can’t seem to recognize it is, first and foremost, his son’s salvation.

It’s a game you want to play throughout The Fabelmans, the spot-the-real-to-reel-memoir contest, even though this extraordinary family drama is nothing if not an autobiography hiding in plain sight.

A deep dive into his formative years, Steven Spielberg’s look back in anger and, ultimately, forgiveness is his own story turned into a Steven Spielberg movie, complete with John Williams score cues, well-known actors (and a star-making performance from a young cast member), heroic low-angle shots, underdog triumphs and happily ever afters.

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But More Importantly, It’s A Peek Behind The Curtain At Spielberg’s Interior Life That Feels Like A Significant Work — Maybe The Significant Work — From An Artist Who Has Spent Decades As American Cinema’s Civics Professor And Great Escapist.

Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans | Current | The Criterion Collection

The partially nostalgic, majorly cathartic return to the roots of it all has been a preoccupation of filmmakers recently, from Roma to Belfast to Armageddon Time to, in its own way, Licorice Pizza.

The idea that the very private Spielberg would add his own entry to the canon seemed like an impossibility, even after his film-brat peers and contemporaries had long mined their own youth for film fodder. Yet he’s done it, and done it beautifully. This is the movie we’ve been waiting 45 years for him to make.