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Review: With ‘The Fabelmans,’ Spielberg confronts the story of himself

Film shows how artist wasn’t birthed in a vacuum
Director Steven Spielberg waves to fans during the red carpet premier of his film, The Fabelmans, at Princess of Wales Theatre during the Toronto International Film Festival on, Saturday, September 10, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin

Heart and vulnerability weave through Steven Spielberg’s late-career offering “The Fabelmans,” loosely based on the filmmaker’s childhood.

But more than just being about the beginnings of one of Hollywood’s most successful visionaries, this is a story about family, relationships and heartbreak.

The opening scenes are dedicated to a young, inquisitive Sammy Fabelman, played by Gabriel LaBelle, who develops an obsession with a train crash. After seeing it in a theatre, he becomes preoccupied with the idea of recreating it in toy form.

From here, Spielberg shows audiences what they need to know: the warmth of his mother’s smile as she offers him his father’s camera. Is this the exact moment the boy becomes the filmmaker he’ll grow up to be?

Spielberg and fellow screenwriter Tony Kushner focus on family dynamics — his two sisters are played by Julia Butters and Keeley Karsten, while hisparents are played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano. Seth Rogen portrays a dear family friend, Uncle Benny. His mother, a former pianist and artistic maverick of the family, urges Sammy every step of the way but his father seems too preoccupied with career status to fully appreciate the budding filmmaker’s skills.

There’s an infectious sense of happiness in the way Spielberg presents the Fabelman family, whether it be humorous small talk at the dinner table, or their jubilant Hanukkah celebrations.

Through it all, there’s also an illusion of happiness. Williams does a remarkable job with every gesture and gaze that reveal who she is versus who her husband assumes her to be.

It recalls some of Spielberg’s most celebrated films, which often explore the turmoil and wonder of adolescence. The link between parent and child has been a central motif of Spielberg works from “Empire of the Sun” to “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” In “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” the character Elliott played by Henry Thomas copes with grief over the divorce of his parents by adopting an alien from another world. In the case of Sammy, he finds solace in filmmaking.

Through each pained experience, Sammy finds ways to use film to distance himself, using his ingenuity and professional obsession as both a passion and therapy.

It’s why “The Fabelmans” feels truest to Spielberg as an individual. It’s ripe, without otherworldly metaphors to hide the fact that he’s speaking of his own experiences — when the buildup of accomplishments, breakups, antisemitism and pain loomed large in his life.

If there ever were a message, it was painfully clear: An artist isn’t birthed within a vacuum.

“The Fabelmans” screens Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at TIFF.

—Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press

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