Grove Header (8).png
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Movie Review: 'The Fabelmans'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Steven Spielberg has been making movies for decades about everything from giant sharks and adorable aliens to Abraham Lincoln. Last year he even made a musical. But in his latest film, the director is telling his most personal story. Critic Bob Mondello says "The Fabelmans" is about a suburban youngster who picked up a movie camera six decades ago and became, in a word, Spielbergian (ph).

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: January 1952 - 6-year-old Sammy Fabelman is not thrilled that his folks are dragging him to see "The Greatest Show On Earth," his first movie. What he's heard about movies sounds awful. You sit in the dark, strangers everywhere, giants up there telling stories. His scientist dad's no help. He starts talking about 24 frames a second. And while his mom means to reassure...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FABELMANS")

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (As Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman) Movies are dreams.

MONDELLO: That's almost worse. Sometimes dreams are scary. But once they're inside, the movie does what movies do.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FABELMANS")

LYLE BETTGER: (As Klaus) Hey. Stop the train. Stop the train.

MONDELLO: The story's about a circus. But what gets to Sammy is the train or, rather, the train crash.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION BOOMING)

MONDELLO: Terrified, he's still wide-eyed on the drive home, but later he asks for a model train set for Hanukkah and, to Dad's distress, starts crashing the train.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FABELMANS")

WILLIAMS: (As Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman) Sammy.

MONDELLO: Mom, played by a vibrant Michelle Williams, has an idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FABELMANS")

WILLIAMS: (As Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman) We're going to use Daddy's camera to film it. Only crash the train once, OK? Then after we get the film developed, you can watch it crash over and over till it's not so scary anymore.

MONDELLO: This is a slight variation on the personal origin story Spielberg's been telling interviewers for years. And bringing it to life on screen is more than just a neat trick, especially if you think about the train sequences he put in everything from his "Indiana Jones" movies to "Schindler's List." What follows feels just as heartfelt - a kid discovering the power his movies can have on, say, family members when his grandmother dies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FABELMANS")

PAUL DANO: (As Burt Fabelman) I want you to make a camping trip movie. You can learn how the editing machine works while you do this. It'll make your mom feel better.

GABRIEL LABELLE: (As Sammy Fabelman) Yeah.

DANO: (As Burt Fabelman) That last night when she danced in the headlights - that'd be great. Get to it tomorrow, OK?

LABELLE: (As Sammy Fabelman) Tomorrow is when we start shooting.

MONDELLO: Side note here. If you look on the web...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FABELMANS")

LABELLE: (As Sammy Fabelman) "Escape To Nowhere." We're shooting all weekend, Dad. I can't.

DANO: (As Burt Fabelman) Shoot it next weekend.

MONDELLO: ...You'll find "Escape To Nowhere," which Spielberg made with his Boy Scout troop when he was 13.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FABELMANS")

LABELLE: (As Sammy Fabelman) We got, like, 40 guys coming to be in the movie. I'll work on all the camping trip stuff on Monday.

DANO: (As Burt Fabelman) I'm asking you to do this now for your mom. She's...

LABELLE: (As Sammy Fabelman) Yeah, and I said that will - just not tomorrow.

DANO: (As Burt Fabelman) Don't be selfish. She just lost her mother. That's more important than your hobby.

LABELLE: (As Sammy Fabelman) Dad, can you stop calling it a hobby?

DANO: (As Burt Fabelman) It'll cheer her up watching this. It's something we can do to...

LABELLE: (As Sammy Fabelman) Her mom just died. How is that going to cheer her up?

DANO: (As Burt Fabelman) Because you made it for her.

MONDELLO: Dad, played by Paul Dano, is right. But Gabriel LaBelle's adolescent Sammy will learn more than he wants to in making that little camping film, discovering that the camera sometimes sees things the eye doesn't, about relationships, say, and a family friend played by Seth Rogen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FABELMANS")

SETH ROGEN: (As Benny) Think whatever bad things you want about me, kiddo. But you stop start making movies, it'll break your mother's heart. You will break her heart. I mean it. She doesn't deserve that, not from anybody, least of all from you.

MONDELLO: Spielberg co-wrote "The Fabelmans" with his frequent collaborator Tony Kushner. And he surrounded the cast with off-screen veterans of his other movies. This is, in many senses, a family affair dedicated to his mom and dad, who are depicted with a clear eye and less sentiment than you might expect. But more than a portrait of an artist's upbringing, "The Fabelmans" is a celebration of the art he chose or maybe that chose him - cinema. As Sammy invents and explores and directs, we see it dawn on him, as it must have on Spielberg, that this medium that so scared him at first is capable not just of revealing truths but of shaping them. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "THE FABELMANS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.