Steven Spielberg phones home — and truly connects — with "The Fabelmans"
Starring Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsch, Chloe East and David Lynch. Directed and co-written (with Tony Kushner) by Steven Spielberg. Screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. 151 minutes. STC
⭐⭐⭐⭐ (out of 4)
Steven Spielberg phones home — and truly connects — with “The Fabelmans,” his pseudonymously titled drama about his early family life and filmmaking spark.
Debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere Saturday night, Spielberg’s memory project is a movie of heart and art, the source notes for the man and mind behind such Hollywood classics as “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park” and “Jaws.” It’s sure to resonate with movie lovers and awards bestowers everywhere.
Spielberg, 75, told a packed Princess of Wales theatre audience, following a long standing ovation, that he was “really glad” to have a film at TIFF for the first time in his nearly 60-year moviemaking career.
“This film is a way of bringing my mom and dad back,” he said, insisting he’s not signalling any retirement plans with “The Fabelmans,” which stars Michelle Williams, Paul Dano and Seth Rogen. He co-wrote the film with his “Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner.
“It also brought my sisters closer to me than I ever thought possible. That was worth making the film for,” Spielberg said. The filmmaker’s father, Arnold, died in 2020 at age 103 and his mother, Leah, died in 2017 at 97. His sisters, Nancy, Sue and Anne, were in the Princess of Wales audience, beaming as their brother spoke.
Despite Spielberg’s deep affection for the subjects of his film, “The Fabelmans” is neither comic romp nor sentimental exercise in nostalgia. In fact, while it has many funny moments and Vaudevillian piano interludes (along with another great John Williams score), it may shock some viewers with its unstinting depiction of the anti-Semitism and bullying Spielberg endured growing up and the marital friction (including infidelity) that ultimately divided his mother and father.
Mitzi Fabelman (a.k.a. Leah Spielberg) is played by Michelle Williams as a devoted mom and eccentric free spirit, the kind who would drive the family sedan into a tornado for a close-up view and who thinks a monkey makes a fine household pet.
She fully supports the filmmaking aspirations of her son, Sammy (a.k.a. Steven Spielberg, played by Gabriel LaBelle as a teen and Mateo Zoryna Francis-DeFord as a child), even though he disrupts family life by obsessively filming crashes of his toy trains and cars.
He got the idea for it — shades of Spielberg spectacles to come — while watching a similar smash-up in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” in the first movie he saw with his family, a 1952 outing recreated in the film. Sammy’s shock and awe at seeing a train come towards him from the big screen recalls “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station,” the 1895 silent short by filmmaking pioneers the Lumière Brothers, which terrified early cinema goers.
Sammy moves on to making 8-mm war movies and westerns with his friends, despite the dismissive insistence of his father Burt (a.k.a. Arnold Spielberg, played by Paul Dano) that it’s a hobby and not a career. He tells Sammy/Steven he should aspire to “something real, not imaginary.”
Burt is an all-work-and-no-play kind of guy, a genius computer engineer whose regular promotions and job shifts have the family moving from New Jersey to Arizona to California, much to the dismay of Mitzi and the kids, who feel rootless and ignored. Mitzi is particularly resentful because her own aspirations to become a concert pianist come a distant second to Burt’s career goals.
Burt is not at all like his wise-cracking best pal, Benny (Seth Rogen), who spends so much time with the Fabelmans, especially Mitzi, that everybody refers to him as Uncle Benny.
It’s worth noting that Spielberg and Kushner don’t write or depict Burt as a stereotypical male tyrant. He’s a decent man of the 1950s, the Eisenhower era when men were expected to go to the office to make money and women were expected to stay home and raise a family.
Ditto for their depiction of Mitzi, an unconventional soul portrayed with great compassion as a lonely woman who feels depressed and trapped by societal strictures.
There are many possible Oscar nominations for “The Fabelmans,” Best Picture and Best Director among them, but the one sure acting nomination would seem to be a Best Actress nod for Williams, who is the brightest light in a film blessed with many of them, including hilarious cameos by Judd Hirsch and David Lynch that are worth the price of admission.
(In a chance encounter in an L.A. hotel gift shop, I once met Spielberg’s mother. Williams mirrors the woman with the huge smile who bragged to me about how proud she was of her famous son.)
Also worthy of note, and a fresh face to watch, is LaBelle, 19, the Canada-U.S. dual citizen who plays Sammy like a young Richard Dreyfuss, a kid of awkward personality but boundless energy. We really feel for the guy as he tries to survive in a California high school of the mid-1960s where Jews are a minority and anti-Semitism is the norm, a fact pounded home by surfer-dude bullies and by a Jesus freak girlfriend (Chloe East) who insensitively insists that Sammy embrace Christ if he wants to get close to her.
We also feel the pain as Sammy realizes to his horror that his random 8 mm footage of innocent family fun at a campground has inadvertently caught images of infidelity that will have saddening consequences. (Spielberg presents this revelation like a gotcha moment in a thriller, bringing to mind “Blow-Up,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s camera-tells-all classic.)
A delightful background narrative of “The Fabelmans” is the depiction of many light bulb moments of Spielberg’s life as he laboured to become one of history’s most successful filmmakers.
Sammy learns to make gunshots look real in his home movies by putting pinpricks into his 8-mm celluloid — the first special effects by a kid who would one day put a rubber shark (fake but still scary) and realistic CGI dinosaurs onto the big screen.
Sammy discovers the hard way how seriously people take movies, when the amateur actors of his homemade films see themselves on the screen in ways they hadn’t imagined.
He’s also the recipient of many bromides about the importance of art and its inherent dangers. “Art is as dangerous as a lion’s mouth,” says his Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a lovable rascal who has a circus background. “It’ll bite your head off.”
Sammy gets a brusque lesson in camera framing from a character I’ll leave you to discover, a lesson that will have you checking the horizons of all future photos and videos you shoot.
It makes for a fantastic ending to the fabulous “The Fabelmans,” a movie about one of the world’s best-known makers of unforgettable images who seems fully revealed to us for the first time. 🌓
(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)