Steven Spielberg’s most personal film is a coming-of-age triumph.
This is an advanced review out of the Toronto International Film Festival, where The Fabelmans made its world premiere. It will have a limited theatrical release on Nov. 11, 2022, before expanding wide on Nov. 23.
Steven Spielberg presents his warmest, most loving, most personal project, as The Fabelmans sees the legendary filmmaker retell the story of his childhood through the magic of an Amblin movie. The result is a therapeutic, emotional, raw, funny, endearing ode to family, artists, and the power of cinema.
We’ve seen a lot of filmmakers turn autobiographical with their movies lately. From Roma to Belfast, to the upcoming Armageddon Time and Empire of Light, these films see their directors reckoning with their upbringing and the mistakes they made. Some of these end up as fascinating and beautiful movies in their own right – others, simply an exercise in ego. The Fabelmans belongs to the former. This is the movie Spielberg’s entire career has been building to. After all, the director’s story is well known, particularly because of how much it influenced his earlier work. With The Fabelmans, Spielberg takes the chance to rewrite his own mythology, retelling the events of his childhood to be the idealized version he may wish had been real. Like The Matrix: Resurrections, this is a therapy session turned into a movie, a chance for Spielberg to bring his parents back and get closer to his family, all while making a hugely entertaining coming-of-age movie.
The film follows the titular Fabelmans, and focuses on Sammy Fabelman throughout his young years, starting with the time he went to see his first motion picture and got traumatized by a big sequence in The Greatest Show on Earth, and how he became obsessed with recreating that scene with toys in his room. It isn’t until his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams in a career-redefining performance), suggests he films the scene to be able to watch it over and over that she realizes what Sammy wants is to regain a sense of control from its emotional impact, and movies give him a chance to claim some control over life.
This is a theme that permeates all throughout the film, and in Spielberg’s own career. And the thing is, Sammy definitely needs that control, for his life is very chaotic. The Fabelmans is shot with a bright, almost dream-like quality, almost as if to bring the artifice of the story to the surface, and as a reminder that this is but an idealized and fictional version of true events. With The Fabelmans, Spielberg makes the Hollywood version of his life – the life he may wish he had lived. The tale of Sammy Fabelman is one where the flaws and chaos of his family life are charming rather than exasperating; where his mother is a free spirit and an artist more than just a deeply unhappy and perturbed woman; where his father is not the quitter who would inspire many absentee fathers in Spielberg’s movies, but a caring, if stern, genius whose children simply aren’t as excited to talk about magnetic fields and circuits as he is.
From the very beginning, it becomes clear The Fabelmans is as much a therapy session and a chance to rewrite the past to make up for mistakes as Armageddon Time is a confession. The script, written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner, imagines the director if he had tried to understand his parents and see their sides of the story. This is a love letter to everyone who made Steven Spielberg the man, from his sisters, a crush, his friends, and even a high school bully. More than anything, this is a movie about Spielberg trying to see his mother and understand her, and thanks to the writing and Michelle Williams’ raw performance, it becomes a heartbreaking and heartwarming experience.
Likewise, The Fabelmans also shines a light on the cost of art, how artists often love their craft more than their family, and the pain that comes with that realization. It paints an emotional picture of the way Sammy’s home movies impact those around him, how it brings his friends joy to see themselves on screen, and how it brings sorrow to those who see Sammy capture a side of themselves they wanted to be hidden. Sammy sees the world in ways no one else around him does – and he learns that life isn’t like the movies – but nevertheless tries to make work that helps him understand life and make it a bit better.
If this sounds heavy, rest assured the emotion on screen is balanced by an equally prominent sense of humor, especially once we enter Sammy’s teenage years. Gabriel LaBelle works wonders as teenage Sammy, bringing joy and laughter to the role even as there is an insatiable hunger that makes him want to leave it all behind, grab his camera and go. One of the biggest laughs comes from Sammy getting a very, very Christian girlfriend whose idea of a first date is to go to her house, look at all her pictures of Jesus, and then pray that the holy spirit penetrates this very Jewish boy.
As much as the movie is a tribute to the Spielberg family, the parents whose relationship shaped so much of Steven’s life, the sisters whose constant screaming (think the girls from Evil) annoyed him but who also served as his friends and stars of his first movies, The Fabelmans is also a giant love letter to his love of film. We see faithful recreations of the director’s early home movies, rendered beautifully with modern technology. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski makes the scenes of Sammy producing movies shine, swirling the camera as the teenager cuts pieces of film on an editing machine, and shooting an early war home movie with the gravitas of the opening of Saving Private Ryan. This is aided by a rousing and deeply intimate score by John Williams – the best he’s been in years – with a prominent piano that serves as an homage to Spielberg’s mother.
The Fabelmans sees one of our best living directors bringing his childhood to the screen in a cathartic, therapeutic, emotional, and hugely entertaining way. The ending — with a nice cameo — is an all-time great Spielberg scene. This is a film so personal and intimate, so much about trying to see and understand one’s parents and the unhappiness and sorrows they carry in silence, you can practically superimpose the Neon Genesis Evangelion “Congratulations” ending over its ending, especially its final postscript: “To my father, thank you. To my mother, farewell. And to all the children, congratulations.”