Steven Spielberg is undoubtedly aware of the so-called “Spielberg face,” one of his directorial signatures that has been identified (and memed) by the internet in recent years. You can picture it without much effort: A character gazing upward in awe and a bit of terror, slightly off-screen. When a performer in a Spielberg movie sees a dinosaur, an alien, a really big shark or a giant rolling boulder, this is what they do.
As “The Fabelmans” quickly points out, though, we’ve been missing the point of this expression. These characters aren’t just wonderstruck in a particular way; they’re taking a moment to mirror us.
They’re looking at the movie.
In the opening sequence of “The Fabelmans,” Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical account of his own upbringing and path to filmmaking, a young Sam Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) sees his first movie: “The Greatest Show on Earth,” by Cecil B. DeMille. The youngster’s parents (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, both brilliant) argue over whether or not the experience will be too scary; when Stan sees a dramatic train crash, he gazes up at the screen, mouth agape, making history’s first Spielberg face.
The parents think he’s traumatized; really, he’s hooked.
“The Fabelmans” will continue to trace the young filmmaker’s experiments with moving pictures, from his earliest home movies to the day he first wanders onto the Paramount lot. The movies, however, are the circumstances; the subject is the gradual decline of a dysfunctional family.
Sam, played as a teen and young adult by Gabriel LaBelle, is the first to realize that his parents’ marriage is on thin ice — and that his mother’s mental health is flagging. As the family, which includes a trio of sisters (Julia Butters, Keeley Karsten and Sophia Kopera), repeatedly moves around the country in pursuit of success and happiness, the environment inside the Fabelman home grows more and more fraught. When a final move lands the family in northern California, Stan is further tormented by anti-Semitic harassment.
“The Fabelmans” exists in a tradition with other recent romans á clef such as “Roma,” “Belfast” and “Armageddon Time.” It succeeds much more than any of its predecessors, however, because Spielberg is willing to be unromantic about his own past. Yes, the wonder that led him to the camera is there, but it’s under a consistent cloud of reality and even a good bit of regret. Whereas other directors can’t help but wax nostalgic about the good old days when they head back in time, Spielberg is here to make a good movie — one that just happens to be about his own life.
My Rating: 9/10
“The Fabelmans” is now playing in theaters.