Steven Spielberg has probably earned the right to some public self-reflection, which he does in rich abundance in his new film, The Fabelmans, which premiered here at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday. A lengthy look back at a version of Spielberg’s childhood—its parental strife, its peripatetic existence, its dawning passion—The Fabelmans is so summative of the filmmaker’s memories and motivation that it almost feels like a goodbye.
The film concerns a boy named Sam, whom we first meet when he is young and scared to go into the movies, where, he’s heard, everyone on screen is big and scary. Once his parents finally coax him into the theater, to see The Greatest Show on Earth, something burrows into Sam’s head and heart. It’s not affection, at first. It’s a kind of existential astonishment, almost a terror, that this kid just can’t shake. Here we see, perhaps, the birth of Spielberg’s taste for spectacle—and of his darkness, which too often gets lost in our estimation of his artistry in favor of his more nostalgic, mushy-hearted tendencies.
The man who’s made so many indelible images of childhood awe also has an oeuvre full of violence and horror, but often delivered with a formal dispassion. The Fabelmanswhich Spielberg wrote with steady collaborator Tony Kushner, offers some explanation for that: as a sad turmoil descends over his family, Sam retreats behind his camera, better to stay at an observing remove. Older, and discovering a secret involving a beloved family friend played warmly by Seth Rogen, Sam briefly forsakes his hobby—or, really, his calling—altogether. There’s a tug of war within him, between his art dele and the tangible life he’s trying to manage in the real world.
That tension is vividly described to him in a masterful scene featuring Judd Hirsch as Sam’s oddball great uncle, a former circus performer who drifted into the movie business in the 1920s and sees in Sam the pain of an artist. Sam has that in common with his mother, Mitzi, played with flounce and ache by a magnificent Michelle Williams. Mitzi is a gifted pianist, but she never pursued her talent professionally. She’s restless, impulsive, loving, and reckless all at once. Now that he’s 75 years old, Spielberg seems to have gained some compassionate clarity for a parent who, at the time, seems to have been an often frightening and frustrating presence in his life.
One could delve into armchair analysis and determine that she’s why Spielberg has made so few movies with women at the center—there’s even a brief, winking joke about that lack on his resumé. The Fabelmans does, on occasion, invite such interpretation, making gestures toward his filmography, explaining his interests or, at least, accounting for them. Spielberg knows how we will watch a film like this—how could we not, when the world’s most famous director is finally, after so many years, getting specifically personal. But he wants us to feel something of our own, too, about the confusion and wonders of our own youths as it all shifts and rearranges in the rearview.
The film unfolds in an episodic ramble, but is more carefully constructed than so many memoir films that simply meander through a filmmaker’s life. Humor and sorrow and hope dance around one another as this nattering family moves from New Jersey to a cozy and almost edenic Arizona, then to a far less forgiving northern California. When Sam is a teenager, he’s played by Gabriel LaBelle, a perspicaciously talented actor making only his fourth film appearance. He’s a terrific find, natural and affable. In Spielberg, Kushner, and LaBelle’s portraiture, Sam is a decent kid, but we can also see him receding into the privacy of his passions.
A distance develops between his whirring mind and the rest of the world—though, of course, he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to bring the world closer to everyone else. A charming scene in which Sam meets an oddball filmmaking legend (featuring a cameo from none other than David Lynch), leads to a closing shot that gently lifts the film up toward pure, classically Spielbergian sentiment. It’s a sweet, wistful, and just ever so slightly self-aggrandizing little button that is perfectly justified, as Spielberg has just spent so many minutes generously holding himself up to be studied.