The little boy is scared. There’s such a large crowd outside the theater. He has no idea what will happen when he walks through the doors and into the room filled with dozens of seats, all facing a large blank square. Plus it’s in the dark. He’s been told him that there are giants in there, though his dad gently corrects him; the people are normal-sized, they’re just on a big screen.
It’s 1952, Sammy Fabelman in six years old, his parents have taken him to see his first movie — Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth — and he’s about to have his mind blown. After watching trains colliding into each other on that larger-than-life canvas, he spends the entire ride home in a state of shock. He’s left the real world behind. He’s officially entered the world of dreams.
This is how Steven Spielberg introduces us to the pint-sized hero of The Fabelmans played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, another one of the filmmaker’s many underage characters to gaze up at the world in wonder and awe. This child is distinguished from the Elliot Taylors and Barry Guilers and Short Rounds of his back catalog, however, by one key factor. Sammy is Steven in all but name.
Like Spielberg, this New Jersey kid will graduate from simply crashing toy trains to filming his head-on Lionel locomotive collisions, all the better to control the chaos and replay it over and over again. Sammy, too, will eventually graduate to what Orson Welles once called the biggest electric train set a boy ever had, filming ambitious Westerns and war epics with his sisters and fellow boy scouts in the desert, always going back to the local moviehouse to stare at the giants on the screen, to chase that original high.
And like the director, Sammy Fabelman will also get uprooted from the Garden State to Phoenix, Arizona — “It’s a city on the rise!” his dad exclaims — and watch his family begin to slowly fall apart. He will feel frustrated and betrayed by the world of adults, taking refuge in seeing the world through a lens, of being the one to call the shots and then definitively yell “Cut.” In a movie, you can edit out the evidence that something bad has occurred right under your nose, snip out the scenes of a crime as if they never happened at all. You can’t do that with real life.
Later, the teen Sammy (now played by Gabriel LaBelle) will be forced to move with his family yet again, this time to Northern California, where his high school years will similarly be filled with angst, anti-Semitism, hormones (sort of), bloodied noses, heartbreak. And the movies. Always the movies. His dad Burt (Paul Dano), a computer engineer, keeps calling it Sammy’s “hobby.” Unlike Sammy’s mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a musician, the man can’t seem to recognize it is, first and foremost, his son’s salvation.
It’s a game you want to play throughout The Fabelmans, the spot-the-real-to-reel-memoir contest, even though this extraordinary family drama is nothing if not an autobiography hiding in plain sight. A deep dive into his formative years, Steven Spielberg’s look back in anger and, ultimately, forgiveness is his own story turned into a Steven Spielberg movie, complete with John Williams score cues, well-known actors (and a star-making performance from a young cast member), heroic low-angle shots, underdog triumphs and happily ever afters.
But more importantly, it’s a peek behind the curtain at Spielberg’s interior life that feels like a significant work — maybe the significant work — from an artist who has spent decades as American cinema’s civics professor and great escapist. The partially nostalgic, majorly cathartic return to the roots of it all has been a preoccupation of filmmakers recently, from Roma to Belfast to Armageddon Time to, in its own way, Licorice Pizza. The idea that the very private Spielberg would add his own entry to the canon seemed like an impossibility, even after his film-brat peers and contemporaries had long mined their own youth for film fodder. Yet he’s done it, and done it beautifully. This is the movie we’ve been waiting 45 years for him to make.
If you follow the breadcrumb trail back to Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘s special edition, you’ll find a scene in which Richard Dreyfus has locked himself in the shower while his son screams “Cry-baby!’ at him. It’s one of the more disturbing moments in Spielberg’s back catalog, and he later admitted in an American Masters documentary that the sequence was indeed drawn from real life. The Fabelmans takes that single thread and pulls, pulls, pulls on it until it all unravels. Sammy is a sort of everyboomer adolescent, biking throughout the Sixties suburbs with his friends and camera in tow, living in a state of Saturday matinee bliss. He gets his problem-solving acumen from his father, the mechanical whiz courted by IBM. The creative bent comes from his mother, a blond-bobbed concert pianist who exists in state somewhere between daffy flightiness and undeniable frustration. “It’s Science versus Art here,” she declares at the dinner table one night. “Sammy is on the Art team.”
The outlet for the expressive side of Sammy’s “split” personality gives him a safe haven, but it’s also where he discovers what becomes the Fabelmans’ — and The Fabelmans‘ — original sin. There’s a family friend named Bennie (Seth Rogen), a constant presence in the household and a fellow engineer who Burt brings along on their move to Arizona. While filming a camping trip, Sammy comes across evidence that his mother and Bennie may be close. Quite close. Very close. If you had “a Blow-Up reference” on your Spielberg bingo card, mark it now.
His 24-frames-per-second safe space has now become tainted. This, too, comes from the source, and it speaks volumes to the director’s dedication to looking inward that he includes a truly gutting sequence of Sammy showing this footage to his mother, the camera staying on Williams’ face as she simply crumbles and, thanks to the “hobby” she’s helped nurture, has made her son complicit in what she claims is an unconsummated yet still damning affair. (Her performance is arguably the linchpin of the entire psychodrama being played out, primal-screen–style, and it’s impossible to underestimate what she brings to both this character and the film.)
There’s a lot of other stuff in The Fabelmans, of course, from a whole high school anti-Semitic bully drama taking up the last half to several comic set pieces involving food, monkey business (like literal monkey business), Judaism and the incomparable Jeannie Berlin. You may have heard that David Lynch has a cameo, and all we can say is that whoever thought to cast him in this particular role is a genius. Judd Hirsch blows into the film like a tornado — there’s an actual tornado in here too, by the way — as Mitzi’s former-circus-folk uncle, leaving outrageous hand gestures and pertinent life lessons in his wake before exiting to the sound of a Supporting Actor Oscar campaign you can already hear being tuned up. It exits on a visual gag that plays like the live-action equivalent of “Th-th-th-that’s All Folks!” kicker from the Warner Brothers’ cartoons, though in Spielberg’s case, it signals not the end but the very beginning of a professional ascent.
Yet it’s Sammy’s two main relationships — with his mother and with the moving pictures — that are at the bruised nucleus of Spielberg’s film. The film may be dedicated to both of his parents, but the reckoning with his feelings about his mom, Leah, is what provides the emotional resonance, and after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the director credited screenwriter Tony Kushner for “being my therapist” as they worked out the script. It’s already a given that Spielberg’s ongoing partnership with the Angels in America playwright has been one of the single most beneficial collaborations of both their careers, as Munich, Lincoln and West Side Story can attest; their professional bond is arguably the third main relationship of this project. Kushner has given his friend’s back story a structure to explore the messy memories and madness that make up most of our childhood and teen years, while also providing him a place to be vulnerable, personal, enraged. You can’t imagine either of them doing this without the other, and not just because it’s inspired by Spielberg’s real-life pain. He finally felt ready, willing and able to go there thanks to this.
And go there he does. The Fabelmans uses a movie to pay tribute to the power of the movies, how all that film passing through a gate and all that light passing through a projector’s lens creates some sort of alchemical process you and I might dub “magic.” Yet it’s also someone using those elements to capture the past so he can finally let it go. It’s one man’s thank you to the movies for saving him. And it’s a great American artist utilizing his skill as a great storyteller to finally tell his own.
If the movie does adhere to his signature beats, and feature so many recognizable Spielbergisms, occasionally to its detriment, it’s still one of the most impressive, enlightening, vital things he’s ever done. This is someone who has gifted the public with killer sharks, rampaging dinosaurs, alien ambassadors, high melodramas, rollicking old-fashioned adventures, spills, chills and spectacle galore. The most thrilling thing he could have given us, however, turns out to be a young man with a movie camera, and the chance for an older, wiser man to finally turn that very same camera on himself.
This piece originally ran as part of our Toronto International Film Festival 2022 coverage.