In the Ohio steel mill town of Lillian, population 12,000, a crew of junior-high kids is making a zombie movie. It’s 1979, before the age of cell-phone cameras and digital video software programs. Nonetheless, the kids can make movies via that cheap and ubiquitous amateur format, Super 8 film.

Super 8, the movie, is a super summer film. Despite the lack of a marquee-level star, writer-director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) makes this Steven Spielberg-co-production a thrilling, suspenseful, funny and even moving tale about creative kids in a small town who, already facing the usual challenges of growing up, confront threats far bigger and scarier than any menace they’ve imagined for their zombie-flick script.

The diverse young cast who form the soul of Super 8 are both pros and first-timers. Whether the characters are experiencing the intoxicating, wide-eyed awe of first-time romantic stirrings or simply being annoying, all of them are such authentic kids.

Many writers would automatically make the zombie film’s director leading boy. Abrams resists that temptation, choosing a member of the movie’s crew instead. Making a soulful film debut, Joel Courtney, a middle school student from Idaho, plays Joe, a 14-year-old who recently lost his mother to a steel mill accident.

Joe does makeup and effects on the movie set. A sensitive, responsible boy, he’s a resourceful asset for the film’s director, Charles, a chubby kid whose bossy nature and air of superiority suggest he’s a natural for the director’s chair. Riley Griffiths, a veteran of the Utah Shakespearean Festival, tackles his role as the ambitious kid movie director like a pro.

Even in an otherwise action-filled sci-fi adventure, a story about middle school students freed from school for the summer is ripe for romantic elements. Super 8 adds them beautifully with a girl named Alice, the aspiring actress Charles casts as his film’s leading lady.

Veering from less experienced youngsters in other roles, Abrams casts screen veteran Elle Fanning as Alice. Dakota Fanning’s younger sister, she does scene-stealing work that proves talent runs in the Fanning family. And the important Super 8 scene in which Fanning shines most is great enough to be the scene that future film experts cite as a highlight in the classic that Super 8 seems destined to become.

Even as exceptional quieter moments in Super 8 showcase the kids, especially Joe and Alice, Super 8 plays small-town drama alongside world-shaking thrills of the kind associated with big summer action movies. Spielberg being aboard as producer, the film has its E.T.-meets-Jurassic Park sequences. Despite that old Spielberg magic, it’s Abrams’ deftly applied human touches that make Super 8 a movie worth loving.