Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” is a movie about dreams. The kind of dreams that propel you as a young person into the adult you want to be, shimmering ahead of you, lighting the way. The kind of dreams in which we’re able to see our past, perfectly lit and strangely clear, as if it only makes sense in retrospect. And the kind of dreams we gather in a movie house to watch on screen, flickering in the dark, haunting us long afterward.
Written by Spielberg with frequent collaborator Tony Kushner (“Munich,” “Lincoln,” “West Side Story”), “The Fabelmans” is essentially an Oscar-winning filmmaker’s superhero origin story; the names have been changed, but the story of a boy who wanted to be a filmmaker is taken directly from Spielberg’s real life. Though we see Sammy Fabelman at different ages — little Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord is wonderfully wide-eyed as 6-year-old Sammy, dazzled upon seeing his first movie in a theater — the bulk of the movie features Gabriel LaBelle as a teenage Sammy, a budding filmmaker coping with his parents’ complex marriage, moving from Phoenix to California, antisemitic bullying at school, and a frustration with his engineer father not understanding his dreams. “I wanna make movies,” Sammy tells his dad Burt (Paul Dano, in a beautifully subtle performance) as they talk about his future. “I mean something real,” his father replies.
Much of “The Fabelmans” plays like an affectionate primer on how a midcentury American boy becomes a filmmaker: the careful filming (and wrecking) of the first train set; the increasingly larger-scale movies cast with his little sisters and friends; the repurposing of a baby buggy for a camera dolly; the obsession with ever-better cameras and editing machines; the gradual realization that movies can reveal unexpected truths, or can shade the truth into something else. When Sammy films his family singing around a campfire, he thinks he’s capturing a wholesome, happy moment — but, reviewing the footage later, he finds the camera has told a different story. And there’s a final scene on a studio lot that may or may not have been invented for “The Fabelmans” — I almost don’t want to know, because I’d like it to be true — that ends the movie on a perfect note; reality and fantasy blending together in a young man’s breezy stroll away from the camera.
Sammy, however, is not the most compelling character in “The Fabelmans” (which is a bit problematic in the movie’s too-long final third, focusing on Sammy in high school). Michelle Williams, as Sammy’s mother Mitzi, gives a performance that’s astonishing; she’s both utterly believable and larger-than-life, in the way that memory makes things bigger and brighter. Like Spielberg’s real-life mother Leah, Mitzi is a former concert pianist who mostly gave up her career to raise her four children; she’s an artist who wants her kids to dream big, and encourages Sammy in his filmmaking. But she has a secret — one that the film reveals to us at Sammy’s pace — behind her tremulous smile, which has a way of softly freezing and fading, like it’s the last thing she’s leaving behind. Williams plays her with a speaking voice that makes you think of Judy Garland, of old movies, of nostalgia and romance and broken dreams. “You really see me,” Mitzi tells her son, after viewing footage he shot of her dancing in the moonlight, reaching out to the camera, seeking its nod. “The Fabelmans” is a movie about being seen — and about learning to see.