In theaters for Thanksgiving (a safe and Happy Thanksgiving, by the way!):
The Fabelmans--It begins with little Sammy Fabelman being taken to his first movie in New Jersey in 1952. A cautious, slightly fretful 7-year-old, Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) is not sure if he's up for the experience; he's heard the people onscreen are gigantic, and the idea worries him. So his adoring parents attempt to reassure him, from opposite sides: his practical-minded, scientific dad Burt (Paul Dano) explains how film works technically, while his whimsical pixie of a mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) says that movies are beautiful dreams.
The dream in question turns out to be DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth, and the big train wreck scene hits Sammy's psyche like...well, like a speeding train. He tries to re-create it with the Lionel train set he gets for Hannukah, and later he films his re-creations with a home movie camera.
As you probably know, this is Steven Spielberg's autobiographical coming-of-age movie, scripted by Tony Kushner from a synopsis they worked up together, and made by the usual gang: filmed by Janusz Kaminski with a score by John Williams. The episodes that follow depict the family's life as Burt, a computer genius, chases work in the budding industry from New Jersey to Arizona, where Sammy makes war epics, to northern California, where he encounters anti-Semitic bullies.
Mitzi, who gave up a career as a concert pianist to be a wife and mom, shows signs of restlessness and depression, except when she's interacting with Burt's best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), or when she impulsively buys a monkey, who she names Bennie. All of these strands are filtered through the growth of the relationship between Sam (Gabriel LaBelle as an older kid) and the art and craft of moviemaking.
Even though he's one of the most commercially successful popular artists in the world, I think that Spielberg has, in a sense, been critically underappreciated for decades. After the initial, unprecedented splash he made with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark, he went through a slump in the late '80s and early '90s and cranked out some real bummers; cloying, heavy-handed, trying-too-hard stuff like Hook and Always that made him seem like a phony.
I'm not sure that many critics noticed the way he rediscovered and deepened and sharpened his style with the films he's made in recent years, even when their scripts have sometimes been uneven. Works that range with seemingly equal ease from crisp yet almost invisible technique like The Post to Hitchcockian panache like Bridge of Spies to flashy showmanship like West Side Story suggest an artist who has matured, and who might have something interesting to say about his own life.
And so he does, by turning his gaze outward. Sammy is likable enough, but he's not a rich or idiosyncratic protagonist. What's important is his point of view on Burt and Mitzi. Spielberg here dramatizes the anger and terror, the sense of betrayal, that can result when you begin to see your parents--as Sammy does through his footage of them, while editing home movies--not as stock figures in your story but as complex characters in their own.
And Dano and Williams create vivid, warm portraits of imperfect but unconditionally loving people. So does Rogen, and so does Judd Hirsch in a showcase role as a crazy visionary uncle who tells Sammy hard prophetic truths. So do Jeannie Berlin and Robin Bartlett as the Grandmas, and so do the excellent kids who play the younger sisters. So for that matter, does the monkey.
Not everything in The Fabelmans comes off. There's maybe a scene or two more than is needed of Williams sadly playing sad piano, and the stuff with the bullies, who look like they stepped out of Nazi poster art, feels psychologically confused and uneasy. A scene in which Sammy has a fraught confrontation with a bully he's tried to flatter through moviemaking is potentially interesting for what it hints at about the director's willingness to use his art calculatingly, but it thrashes around and fails, somehow, to come into dramatic focus.
On the other hand, the scenes involving Sammy's early romantic encounters are livened up by the hilarious Chloe East as Monica, his both religiously ecstatic and sexually avid girlfriend, who sees Jesus as one more teen heartthrob. While chaste in the typical Spielbergian manner, they offer a peek at the character's, and the director's, bemused reaction to Christianity.
The movie closes with a depiction of Spielberg's familiar anecdote about his first brush with Hollywood greatness. It allows him to end the film with a self-deprecating "meta" joke that also slyly reminds us that what we've just seen, however honestly intended, is nonetheless a carefully curated official story.