(from left) Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), younger Sammy Fabelman (Mateo...

(from left) Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), younger Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) and Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) in "The Fabelmans." Credit: Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment/Merie Weismiller Wallace

PLOT A boy from a troubled family dreams of becoming a filmmaker.

CAST Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Gabriel LaBelle

RATED PG-13 (some adult themes and language)


WHERE In Manhattan; opening wider on Nov. 23

BOTTOM LINE A love letter from director Steven Spielberg to the people and the art form that made him who he is.

If you want to find fault in the films of Steven Spielberg, which isn’t easy to do, you might point out that they don’t feel personal. Spielberg is a master of every aspect of filmmaking, from the big action sequence to the intimate dramatic moment. Yet for all the thrills, joy and heartbreak Spielberg has given us, from his crackling 1971 debut, “Duel,” to last year’s glorious “West Side Story,” we never get a strong sense of the man behind the camera.

Spielberg tells his own story for the first time in “The Fabelmans,” a work of autobiographical fiction. Written by Spielberg with his “West Side Story” collaborator Tony Kushner, the movie traces the formative years of one Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), a Jewish kid growing up in the 1950s who turns to the movies for escapist fantasies and a much-needed sense of purpose. Nostalgic, bittersweet and big-hearted, “The Fabelmans” brims with gratitude for the heroes and villains alike who shaped a boy into an artist.

There’s something Spielbergian in the suburban normalcy of Sammy’s boyhood — cookie-cutter homes, pesky younger sisters, bickering relatives. Sammy’s father, Burt (a heart-tugging Paul Dano), is an engineer who moves the family around the country to chase better jobs; his mother, Mitzi (lovingly played by Michelle Williams), was once a promising pianist. Following a screening of Cecil B. DeMille's “The Greatest Show on Earth,” a six-year-old Sammy sets about recreating its spectacular train crash with his brand-new Lionels, displeasing his pragmatic dad and delighting his artistic mom — a pattern that will recur throughout his life.

While editing a home movie, Sammy sees something life-shattering. For cinephiles, the moment will recall Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out,” but for Sammy it’s the end of innocence. His Uncle Boris, a crusty old carny (Judd Hirsch, in the kind of supporting tour-de-force that Oscars are made of), warns him that when family and art collide, “it’ll tear you apart.” That theme is echoed by his parents' friend Bennie (a terrific Seth Rogen), who at a crucial moment tells Sammy to keep making movies no matter what.

As Sammy enters high school, he meets his first love (a winning Chloe East), encounters an anti-Semitic bully (Oakes Fegley) and runs afoul of the school's alpha jock (Sam Rechner). Once again, Sammy's camera will play a pivotal role in an unexpected way. These scenes are lively and entertaining, though not as primal and powerful as the ones we’ve already experienced.

A nerve-wracking encounter with the legendary director John Ford (played by a wonderfully cantankerous David Lynch) tells us Sammy is on his way to becoming Spielberg. So what have we learned? Just that Spielberg was a talented kid who worked hard, took his punches and never stopped dreaming. It’s exactly the kind of story that would make a great movie.

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