"The Fabelmans" TIFF Review
From the opening scene of his most personal film yet (that’s quite the statement), Steven Spielberg lays all his cards on the table. Done in a single take, we find the young Spielberg stand-in (named Sammy Fabelman) scared to see his first movie: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. His father pulls him aside and attempts to explain the entire machination process of how films are projected onto the screen. This tactic doesn’t go over well, so Sammy’s mother takes him to the other side, and simply explains that “movies are dreams that you never forget.” In the end, the mother wins out, with Sammy’s reaction to the film being a combination of unexplainable terror and wonder.
Through this scene, we get a thesis statement on Spielberg’s approach to filmmaking. He’s a born storyteller, pouring his mother’s heart into every frame. And he’s also a master craftsman, leaning on his father’s engineering mindset to construct fantastic sequences that defy belief. The more The Fabelmans tell its story, the more that thesis becomes clearer. We learn how one man could be attracted to making movies about a killer shark, a world-traveling archeologist, friendly and unfriendly aliens, the Holocaust, American presidents, World War II, and even modern-day dinosaurs.
Seeing The Greatest Show on Earth, specifically the train crash scene spurs, something in Sammy. He feels compelled to recreate the memory with his own camera and train set, which he does to his mother’s amazement. A passion is quickly born, one that often gets caught in the crossfire of the distraughtness of the Fabelman family over the subsequent years.
Just as he’s done with every genre (except for Westerns, which he claims to be interested in doing for his next project), Spielberg conquers the recent trend of directors making their autobiography about how they fell in love with cinema. You can feel the pure joy Spielberg has in recreating his early 8mm films. Janusz Kaminski’s exquisite Capra-esque lighting and Michael Kahn’s (who's been with Spielberg since Close Encounters of the Third Kind) editing provide that extra needed touch to every moment. And John Williams’ uncharacteristically sneaky score always finds its way into your heart.
Of course, being a Steven Spielberg film means that The Fabelmans contains an overabundance of emotion. But fret not all of you that are allergic to the Spielbergian touch, because here it’s used to tell a much more layered story. With the help of his Munich and Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner, Spielberg also shines a retrospective light on his parent’s marriage, something he never understood as a child. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano both do wonderful work as Mitzi and Burt, respectively. It’s easy to see how these opposites attracted to each other, and how that opposition eventually won out in the form of divorce.
Newcomer Gabriel LaBelle plays the part of Sammy for the large majority of the film. Hopefully, his great performance here will be the first of many to come. Two other performances of note are Seth Rogen as the unofficial Uncle Benny and Judd Hirsch as Sammy’s maternal great-uncle. Both urge Sammy to continue his moviemaking passion in their own way, with Hirsch stealing the show in the two scenes he has.
The Fabelmans is a collection of Spielberg's greatest hits, all delivered to their greatest effect. There’s laughter, tears, and wonder in this story that is much more than the sum of its parts. If Spielberg climbs the Dolby Theatre steps to collect his third Best Director Oscar, then it will be one of the few long overdue wins that came at the right time for the right project.