'The Fabelmans' Is Steven Spielberg's Well-Earned Self-Congratulations

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring Gabriel LaBelle, Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord

Photo courtesy of TIFF

BY Alex HudsonPublished Nov 22, 2022

Last year, Steven Spielberg dipped a tentative toe into his childhood by directing a new adaptation of West Side Story, a musical he'd loved when he was young. He fully takes the plunge with his TIFF-winning The Fabelmans, a quiet family drama based closely on his own experiences as a budding filmmaker.

It's not a straight-up autobiography, but The Fabelmans is dedicated to the memory of Spielberg's parents, and the young Sammy Fabelman (played as a child by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord and as a teenager by Gabriel LaBelle) is clearly a stand-in for the director himself.

As a young kid, Sammy sees a movie featuring a train crash, leading him to replicate it using toy trains at home — and, naturally, film the whole thing. He then becomes something of an adolescent auteur, shooting homemade films with his sisters and friends, and impressing viewers with his resourceful editing tricks.

It initially seems like an idyllic childhood, but a creeping sense of unease builds for much of the film's two-hour-plus runtime — mostly because of the growing disconnect between his parents, the quietly studious computer whiz Burt (Paul Dano) and the emotionally erratic dreamer Mitzi (Michelle Williams), plus the jolly "uncle" Bennie (Seth Rogen), who always seems to be around. Bullying and antisemitism increasingly become a part of Sammy's school life once the family moves to Arizona for Burt's work.

As corny as the description sounds, it's a moving tribute to film itself. With its slow pacing, which is driven by characters rather than plot, and old-school film stock, The Fabelmans distinctly resembles something from the '70s or '80s (the time when Spielberg was getting his start as a filmmaker), and includes a couple of overtly meta jokes when it's clear that the director is winking directly to the audience. Seeing the ways in which Sammy makes the most of his limited resources when making his amateur films is a delight. Sure, Spielberg is basically congratulating his younger self, but he's earned it. When you're one of the greatest directors ever, you're allowed to do that kind of thing.

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