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Nathan Weinbender reviews " The Fabelmans"

Steven Spielberg’s new cinematic memoir, The Fabelmans, is another of his wonderful, wounded family stories, but it’s also a piece of thematic genealogy, the Big Bang for so many themes that have preoccupied the director’s work: the lie of the American nuclear family, the isolation of the suburbs, the effects of divorce on children, the stain of prejudice on society, the poetry and peril of obsession. It is also much stranger, much thornier and much more complex than it initially appears.

We first see the director’s fictional avatar, 6-year-old Sammy Fabelman, sandwiched between his parents in a movie house and staring in wide-eyed wonder at 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth. It inspires one of the great superhero origin stories in recent memory: As Sammy uses his Lionel train set and a Super 8 camera to recreate that film’s climactic train crash, much like the real Spielberg did 70 years ago, we’re witness to the birth of a beloved American artist.

The movie then traces Spielberg’s adolescence through the arc of Sammy Fabelman, played as a teenager by Gabriel LaBelle, and all the signposts of an adolescent life in turmoil: his family’s move from New Jersey to Phoenix to northern California, his parents’ crumbling marriage, the anti-Semitic bullying he endures at school, his first romances and the first time he enchants an audience with celluloid and a projector.

Sammy begins making movies because, as Mrs. Fabelman suggests, it allows him a sort of control he doesn’t have over his own life. His hobby is silently encouraged by his father (Paul Dano), a taciturn software engineer in an era when no one knew what a software engineer was, who seems to relate more to his machines than to other people. Sammy’s mother (Michelle Williams) is the other eccentric artist of the family, a concert pianist whose carefree attitude feels both entirely genuine and entirely a put-on.

Spielberg and his co-screenwriter Tony Kushner surround Sammy with seemingly mythic figures who exist primarily to offer our impressionable young hero sage advice: Judd Hirsch in an unforgettable cameo as a fabulist great uncle who warns him that art is a selfish pursuit; Seth Rogen as an estranged family friend who buys Sammy his first camera as an act of penance; the veteran Hollywood director who crassly deconstructs the art of filmmaking and inspires this movie’s brilliant closing shot.

One could argue that The Fabelmans is merely indulging in the most maudlin impulses of late-period Spielberg: sweeping emotional moments and heartfelt speeches set to an insistent John Williams score and bathed in the halo of Janusz Kaminski’s warm cinematography. But that’s too simplistic: This is Spielberg reimagining his own adolescence through the framework of a prototypical Spielberg movie, an act of mythmaking that simultaneously interrogates the very notion of mythmaking. Spielberg isn’t merely committing his memories to film; he’s considering how film itself distorts our memories in its search for the emotional truth.

Spielberg has, within the context of a deeply earnest and proudly sappy slice of Americana, hidden a self-critical, self-reflexive analysis of his own work, our greatest populist director scrutinizing his id in public. This is his best, most personal movie in a long time.

Nathan Weinbender is a co-host of Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101” heard Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.