Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) begins his filmmaking career. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 9 (UPI) -- Steven Spielberg has captured the wonder of aliens, dinosaurs, treasure hunters and actual historical events. In The Fabelmans, in theaters Friday, Spielberg shows audiences the wonder he found in making movies, and his own family.
Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) take young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) to see his first movie, The Greatest Show on Earth. The train crash scares him.
Mitzi has the idea to let Sammy film his model trains crashing so he can watch the film over and over until it no longer scares him. So Sammy grows up making movies with his sisters and his friends and learning to splice footage together.
By the time Sam is a teenager (Gabiel LaBelle), he's making war movies with special effects he figures out how to make himself. One fun scene shows young Sam directing, but it's just his friend and he doesn't have the words or technique to direct actors yet.
Spielberg's home movies have appeared on DVD features and they really were this sophisticated. The Fabelmans are dramatizations of the Spielbergs.
Mitzi, a pianist, is the one who encourages Sam's artistic pursuits. Burt, a computer scientist, encourages Sam to study math and science so he can do something practical. He dismisses moviemaking as a hobby.
Burt tries to teach all his kids about science, like building a fire when they go camping, but the fun Mitzi is always an easy distraction. It's as if Spielberg can now recognize his father's magic too, and it's not too late retroactively show his appreciation and regret that he didn't pay more attention.
Burt's job moves the Fabelmans from New Jersey to Phoenix, Ariz. Through filming family movies, Sam catches evidence that Mitzi is a little too close with their family friend Bennie (Seth Rogen).
The divorce of Spielberg's parents has been a theme in many of his movies, from the breakdown of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind family and the single mother in E.T., to Indiana Jones's daddy issues and the real-life Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can.
A large part of The Fabelmans is chronicling the events that led to Spielberg's parents' divorce, as Sam (Steven) sees it. At first, Sam edits a family friendly version of the Fabelman home movies, but he can't unsee the parts he took out.
Not every new discovery is magical. Some are devastating.
It strains Sam's relationship with Mitzi and strains his relationship with Burt even further. It also strains his relationship to filmmaking.
By the time Sam is in high school, he experiences anti-Semitism, a real life horror Spielberg has tackled before. But, Sam also meets a flirtatious shiksa (Chloe East) who is genuinely attracted to his culture, even if it's in a delightfully childlike way, and reawakens his passion for film.
There are many historical and cultural issues at play in The Fabelmans but the lens of filmmaking, as it were, puts them in a unique context. Spielberg shows how film has the power to control and direct what is messy and confusing about life.
That doesn't fix anything in real life, but it is an outlet and it helps explain why some artists have the gift to make such compelling films. The rest of the film is full of examples of how everyday experiences can be just as revelatory to the people living them.
Not every family had someone grow up to be an artist who touched billions of lives through their work. But every family has their own story and Spielberg knows how to tell one of those.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.