Toronto 2022 Review: The Fabelmans
Just a year after a grand adaptation of West Side Story that raised the bar for the modern movie musical, Steven Spielberg is back with one of the smallest (if you can call any Spielberg movie small) and most personal films he’s ever made. You’d be forgiven for any wariness about The Fabelmans: the outlines of the director’s early life are well known, almost mythological, especially in regards to his parents’ divorce, a clearly painful and formative moment that has shaped many an aspect of many a film by the master — putting memories such as these on the screen, thinly veiled as they are by the guise of fiction, always carries a danger of collapse under the weight of material that lives far too close to home. But though Steven Spielberg is not infallible, he remains one of our greatest living (perhaps an unnecessary qualifier) filmmakers and storytellers, and by turning the camera inward has crafted yet another masterpiece to stand proudly among his many other towering achievements.
The Fabelmans follows the titular family: teenage Sammy Fabelman (Gabrielle LaBelle), obsessed with movie-making from a young age, his mother and biggest champion Mitzi (Michelle Williams), his well-meaning but not always understanding father Burt (Paul Dano), and his younger sisters, as well as the family’s closest friend Benny (Seth Rogen). As they travel from New Jersey to Arizona to California, the Fabelmans are tested by challenges that may seem familiar, even mundane, but through the lens of Spielberg and long-time collaborators Tony Kushner (writer), Janusz Kaminski (cinematography), and John Williams (score), family drama and coming-of-age trials seem both utterly relatable and somehow like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Shots are reflected and refracted through our knowledge of the Spielberg oeuvre, though it’s not direct self-homage — more a reminder of the shared universal language so many of us have learned through watching his films throughout the years. In the hands of many others this sort of film could be unbearably sentimental — or worse, eye-rollingly pretentious — but the long-gestating collaboration between Spielberg and Kushner impressively avoids both pitfalls to reach something that’s less sentimental than bittersweet, less pretentious than clear-eyed and open-hearted.
It helps, of course, to have such a distinguished cast assembled, and they perform their parts spectacularly. It’s hard to say Spielberg’s underrated in any facet at this point, but his more technical skills may overshadow just how good he is with actors — especially younger ones — and just how many incredible performances his films have captured over the years. The previously mostly unknown LaBelle is a true revelation here, capturing the essence and energy of his director without ever reminding us openly of who he’s really playing; Dano and Rogen both give introspective and nuanced performances of varying tones, and a trio of screen legends — Judd Hirsch, Jeannie Berlin, and one whom I won’t name here — utilize their comedy chops to full effect in their limited scenes (on a related note, the final sequence of the film is one of the funniest and perhaps greatest endings Spielberg has ever shot). But I expect more than anyone else viewers will walk away with — if possible — an even greater appreciation for the talents of Michelle Williams, whose effervescent emotionality is captured here in all its glory, her face an ever changing wellspring of love and passion, longing and regret.
The director makes no effort to disguise the fact that the Fabelmans are stand-ins for the Spielbergs and that many sections of the film are lifted directly from events of his youth. But as fact, memory, and fiction intertwine, it doesn’t particularly matter how autobiographical The Fabelmans ultimately is: as in the greatest of stories, there are universal truths no matter the substance, and Spielberg’s latest is no different. It’s a movie for film lovers, for parents, for children, for anyone who has ever had to confront the realities of life on the path to finding their callings. Spielberg may have written a love letter to his family, but in the end it’s one to all of us as well.