Steven Spielberg doesn’t attend his high-school reunions. After seeing his autobiographical coming-of-age film “The Fabelmans,” it’s easy to understand why.
Drawn from the director’s real-life teen years, the new movie depicts Sam Fabelman — Spielberg’s alter ego, played by Gabriell LaBelle — getting beaten up, enduring anti-Semitic slurs from jeering jocks and feeling brutally alienated.
According to Phil Pennypacker, a classmate of the director’s from Saratoga High School in Saratoga, Calif., a lot of that was true —only it wasn’t the jocks who went after Spielberg.
“There was a group who were car-club type people; they wore distinctive jackets and drove power cars,” Pennypacker, 75 and living in San Jose, Calif., told The Post. “As I’ve heard it, one or two of those people flipped pennies at Steve and called him ‘Jew boy’ … The anti-Semitic action was despicable.”
Classmate Michael Augustine, a former antiques dealer now living in Portland, Oregon, said he was a friend of Spielberg’s. “People covered their mouths and coughed ‘Jew boy’ as Steve walked by,” he told The Post. “I commented that he should ignore it. But humor was the only way to survive.
“Steve had the greatest sense of humor and was one of the smartest people I knew. He had a total sense of irreverence. Mad magazine was it for him.”
As seen in the new movie — which is already tipped as an Oscar contender — Spielberg’s family moved from Phoenix, Ariz., to Saratoga in 1963, during his junior year.
“I got smacked and kicked,” he told the New York Times in 1993, sharing high school memories that led to spilled blood on two occasions. “It was horrible.”
The smack-down depicted in the movie, which results in a bloody nose, is administered by jocks who accuse Sam Fabelman of killing Christ. Another classmate, Pete Fallico, who went on to become a jazz DJ in San Mateo, Calif., remembers the bloody nose.
“The person who I heard had bloodied his nose was a troublemaker,” said Fallico, 75, adding that the likely perpetrator is now deceased. “He took five years to get through high school. So he was older than the rest of us.”
Fallico isn’t sure it was related to Spielberg being Jewish, though: “If you showed weakness, people picked on you.”
In the movie and in interviews, Spielberg makes himself out to have been the only Jew in the school. He told the website Berhman House that, at Christmas time, while the rest of his family’s block was ablaze in holiday illumination, their home had “nothing a but a porch light on.”
Augustine recalls an air of “bitterness” tinged with dry humor about it all. “I asked him what Hanukkah was like, and he responded, ‘You light candles and drink wine. Then you light more candles and drink more wine.’ I told him that there had to be more to it than that. And he said, ‘I hope so.’”
Saratoga classmate Midge Firenzi, 75, who describes herself as a “pompom girl” in high school, told The Post: “There were very few Jewish kids in the school. Maybe there were three or four [out of 276 students] in our class. The school was very WASPy. Almost everyone was blond-haired and blue-eyed.
“Steve was suspect,” Firenzi, now a pilates instructor in Cambria, Calif., said. “‘Who is this guy? He’s not a jock and he’s not a nerd.’”
But the future Oscar winner stood out as a member of the student newspaper, the Saratoga Falcon. Fallico remembers him writing snappily about sports, and Pennypacker, who was the front page editor, admired Spielberg’s top-notch photography: “He took pictures at the football games and got great action shots.”
A key plot point in the second half of the movie is Sam getting hot and heavy with a girlfriend, Monica (Chloe East), who hopes to convert him to Christianity. That may be pure Hollywood fiction, though: No one interviewed by The Post remembers Spielberg having a girlfriend.
On the other hand, the the movie’s climax rings true to Saratoga classmates.
In “The Fabelmans,” Sam gets sweet teenage redemption when he volunteers to film Ditch Day, where the seniors skip school and head to the beach for fun and sun. When he unveils the movie at a school dance, everyone loves it — except for two of the bullying jocks. One, Logan, is confused as to why Sam would make him look good; the other, Chad, is furious that the film portrays him as bumbling, tipsy and striking out with girls. When the latter attacks Sam, Logan comes to the young filmmaker’s defense and punches out Chad.
“The most vivid memory I have of Steve is him filming us on the beach,” Fallico recalled of what Saratoga students called Cut Day. “He showed us setting up umbrellas and running around in the sand. Steve sped it up like the Keystone Cops. At times, he focused on waves coming in. We later wondered if that what was when he got the idea for ‘Jaws.’”
Added Pennypacker: “For people who didn’t know Steve, watching that film was a lightning bolt moment.”
The movie became a staple of class reunions but mysteriously disappeared after the 2005 get-together. Pennypacker, who went on to become a lawyer and California Superior Court judge, suspects the footage was snatched by someone who recognized its value as a collectible.
But Fallico wonders if there is more of a Spielbergian plot twist at play. “It’s my assumption that he sent someone down to the high-school office and confiscated the film. He would not want it in the wrong hands. How much do you think it would sell for on eBay?”
As “The Fabelmans” winds down, audiences see college-age Sam living in Hollywood, applying for jobs in the film business and being rejected. Decades after high-school graduation, during a visit to Universal Studios, Pennypacker came across something that shows the scene being pretty true to life.
On display is a rejection letter addressed to Spielberg’s father’s home at the time. Written days after his high school graduation, the note reads: “It is unlikely that there will be opportunities for summer employment on the lot.”
But Pennypacker remembered Spielberg proving to be a star even before “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
“He went to Cal State Long Beach for college, came back that summer and, in the school cafeteria, showed a movie he made,” Pennypacker said, although he doesn’t recall the subject matter. “Everyone who saw it went nuts. We all thought he was on his way.”
Nonetheless, Pennypacker added, “He hates our guts. I wrote him a letter when we had our fifth- and tenth-year reunions. He didn’t respond. I think [high school] was a difficult time in his life. I guess he wants to turn the page and leave it behind.”
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