The Fabelmans Review: One Of Steven Spielberg's Warmest, Most Autobiographical Films [TIFF]

There's a scene in Steven Spielberg's "The Fabelmans" that hit me like a ton of bricks. Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), a kid who dreams of making movies, has just met his Great Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch). In his youth, Boris worked in the circus — and in the movies. He's an artist, and he recognizes that Sammy is an artist, too. And as Boris matter-of-factly points out, Sammy may love his family — but he loves making movies just a little bit more. It was one of those "ah-ha" moments I've longed to hear spoken aloud. The idea that you can love those near and dear to you, but you can also love movies — and making art — just a little bit more. 

"The Fabelmans" is the movie Spielberg has been working towards for his entire life. I'm not saying it's his masterpiece — it's not. I'm saying that this is Spielberg's own personal story rendered in slick, big-screen cinema form. He's made plenty of personal, autobiographical films before, but he couldn't make this movie until this very moment in his life. Anyone who is a Spielberg fan — or should I say Spielberg nerd — doesn't just know Spielberg's movies, they know Spielberg's history. It's as if he has his own mythology — how he made home movies as a kid, how he taught himself to become a director, how his parents' divorce turned him at odds against his father, eventually resulting in a series of films with absentee dads, how he started off in TV before becoming one of the most successful directors of all time.  

With "The Fabelmans," Spielberg is grappling with his own mythology, and re-examining it, too. This isn't exactly how Spielberg's life unfolded; it's the Hollywood version, and that's fitting. Spielberg is one of the best filmmakers of all time; an icon. Movies are dreams, and Spielberg is a creator of dreams, so it's only fitting that his autobiography is a more Hollywood-ized version of the truth. The result is a film that's funny, sweet, and comfortably warm. And yet, there's a certain melancholy lurking beneath the joy of all. Because the moral of Uncle Boris' speech about loving making art above all else is that artists ultimately lead a lonely life. They are trapped in their own heads, and their only outlet is to create things that no one else can. It can be alienating, and you get the sense that despite all his massive, massive success, there's a loneliness in Spielberg's heart; loneliness he's been chasing away his entire life. But there's also joy; joy in the form of creating films that can thrill, awe, entertain, and bring us to tears. 

The Greatest Show on Earth

Penned by Spielberg and his best screenplay collaborator, Tony Kushner, "The Fabelmans" gets off to a rather rocky start. After a lovely scene where a young Sammy, our Spielberg avatar (played as a younger child by Mateo Zoryna Francis-Deford), sees his first movie on the big screen — "The Greatest Show on Earth" — and comes away awed and afraid, the film grows rather abrasive. Sammy's home life is loving but chaotic, and everyone, especially his sisters, seems to be screaming all the time. This is one of my most anticipated films of the year, and I found myself overcome with a sense of unease during these early scenes, worried that Spielberg had missed a step. Thankfully, "The Fabelmans" eventually finds its groove, because of course it does. I should probably be ashamed for doubting the maestro. Sorry, Steve. 

Sammy's father Burt (Paul Dano, who radiates a calm charm here) is loving but a workaholic frequently away from home, working on cutting-edge computer technology with his longtime friend Bennie (Seth Rogen). Burt is scientific and analytical, but Sammy's mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) is what you'd call a free spirit. Like Sammy, she's an artist — she plays piano, and dreamed of doing it professionally before having children. It's clear that part of "The Fabelmans" is meant to be a love letter to Spielberg's mother, but Williams' performance never really clicked with me, even though I regard her as a remarkable actor. Mitzi's alcoholism is hinted at, and her frequently troubled mental state is highlighted. But Williams decides to play the role to the hilt, going huge, guffawing and falling into hysterics over things that aren't particularly funny. Intentional or not, it grates on the nerves a bit.

But the film finds its footing once Sammy has grown into a teenager, played by Gabriel LaBelle, who is immensely likable here, so much so that I hope he works with Spielberg again. Sammy is obsessed with making movies, and he does so frequently, using his father's camera and his friends as extras, and creating bigger and more elaborate movies as he gets better and better at it all. All of these early childhood films on display here are direct recreations of films the young Spielberg made himself, and it's a joy to watch the filmmaker resurrect his youthful work. He's reliving his childhood, and bringing us along with him. And it's not a disagreeable journey at all. 

Art is your drug

The Fabelman family starts off in New Jersey, moves to Arizona, and eventually ends up in California. The California section is the best part of the film, as Sammy grows into the filmmaker we know he'll eventually become. He also deals with plenty of personal drama — his parents are growing apart, a fact heightened by Mitzi's attraction to Bennie. On top of that, the kids at Sammy's new school are fiercely antisemitic, bullying Sammy mercilessly. Judaism is a big part of Spielberg's life, and thus it's a big part of "The Fabelmans," although the filmmaker doesn't quite go deep enough with these elements. "I was ashamed of a lot of things and they actually managed with enough chiding and bullying to make me actually feel ashamed of being Jewish," Spielberg said of his bullied youth, but there's no hint of that shame here. But again: this is the Hollywood version of the story, not the real deal. Spielberg is the artist; we'll let him paint the picture he wants to paint. 

Despite these rather dire situations, Spielberg and Kushner's script frequently goes for big laughs. Eventually, Sammy falls for a Catholic girl named Monica (a charming Chloe East), and their first "date" to Monica's bedroom, where she shows Sammy her many, many portraits of Jesus and then asks Sammy to pray with her, is one of the funniest things Spielberg has ever created. There's also a brilliant meta joke involving one of Sammy's bullies that I won't spoil, but trust me, you'll know it when it happens, and you'll laugh — hard. Ditto the film's final scene, which is a Spielberg all-timer. 

While this is one of Spielberg's most grounded movies — save for a scene involving a tornado, don't expect big special effects-laden set pieces — he still brings his unmatched style to it all, with longtime cinematographer Janusz Kamiński moving the camera around Sammy as he toils away at his editing machine, or capturing the haunting light that cuts through the Fabelman household windows. It's beautifully rendered, and often magical — like when Sammy uses his hands as a makeshift screen, aiming the projector at his open palms. 

And through it all, the simple fact remains — Sammy, and Spielberg, can't stop, won't stop. He must make art. As his Great Uncle told him, he's a junkie — art is his drug, and he can't get enough of it. There's something comforting about that; a sense that Spielberg won't ever quit — that he'll be creating movies until he's gone, and at that point, we'll be left with his massive, looming legacy. "The Fabelmans" doesn't feel like a capper to Spielberg's career. It feels like an immensely personal story that the filmmaker had to wait to tell. And now that he's told it, it's time to move on to the next great work of art. 

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10