Steven Spielberg makes his own ‘Wonder Years’ in a autobiographical coming-of-age tale that hits you (gently) in the feels
For so long, Steven Spielberg has been subtly revealing to us details of his upbringing that he has effectively converted us all into amateur psychiatrists. Since he first called “action,” we have felt the reverberations of his boyhood, from all those lost parents and the separation anxiety of Close Encounters and E.T. to the outright abandonment of Empire of the Sun and War of the Worlds, and even that pesky monkey in Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Yes, his mother did once purchase the household a naughty monkey.)
So, what new ideas do The Spielbergs—sorry, The Fabelmans—bring to the table? The response is a resounding yes because of the film’s gifted director, the open-hearted storytelling, and some excellent performances, especially from Williams and Dano. Spielberg has said, “I still think I make personal pictures, even if they do appear like giant commercial popcorn flicks. Here is his own movie, which appears to be personal.
On one level, it’s a slow-motion road movie (hello, Sugarland Express) that follows young Sammy Fabelman, Spielberg’s on-screen surrogate, and his family as employment opportunities take them from New Jersey to the sun-kissed beaches and high-school antisemitism of the 1960s California, via a difficult period in Arizona.
Additionally, it is a family drama chock-full of suppressed feelings, dark secrets, and challenging truths. Dad Burt (Paul Dano), a pioneering computer genius, disappears further and further into his career, and mum Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a former piano virtuoso of real talent, slowly withdraws, possibly due to undiagnosed mental health issues, as witnessed by newcomer Gabriel LaBelle, a virtual doppelganger for the teenage Spielberg.
The greatest Show on Earth by Cecil B. DeMille, Sammy’s attempts to recreate its iconic train crash on camera using toys, and an unforgettable final reel encounter with cranky movie legend John Ford are just a few of the small details that bring the movie’s joys to life (David Lynch, in a role he was born to play).
Add to that the outrageous Uncle Boris (a scene-stealing Judd Hirsch), who tells Sammy to be “a meshuggah for art.” Or the sound of Mitzi’s press-on nails when she plays the piano. Or Sammy’s bittersweet relationship with his loving surrogate uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen), who unintentionally contributes to the biggest sorrow Sammy will experience.
It’s hard not to picture a dewy-eyed Spielberg narrating the film’s wonderful moments to co-writer Tony Kushner as the two pored over the script.
While not every moment of family life needs to be filled with surprises and excitement, the first half drags at times, and its familial dramas occasionally fall flat.