Steven Spielberg takes his autobiographical childhood portrait to Toronto, with Michelle Williams and Paul Dano starring

The Fabelmans

Source: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

’The Fabelmans’

Dir: Steven Spielberg. US. 2022. 150 mins.

In The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg looks back on his upbringing with compassion and generosity, marvelling at that young kid who wanted to be a filmmaker and, more profoundly, the parents who shaped him. Semi-autobiographical and dedicated to his late mom and dad, the film is a potent memory piece guided by remarkable performances from Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, who are asked to walk a delicate tonal tightrope, delivering a portrait of an imperfect marriage that’s heartbreaking in its tenderness. And for a director often criticised for his sentimentality, Spielberg is largely restrained here, revisiting his childhood from a healthy distance that allows him to see those bygone years in all their poignant complexity.

One of his most touching, mature pictures

This is the Oscar-winner’s first film to premiere at Toronto, with a US release starting November 11. (The Fabelmans hits the UK in late January.) Spielberg’s numerous fans may be intrigued to watch what is, in essence, the director’s origin story, and a cast that includes Seth Rogen and, amazingly, David Lynch will further stoke commercial interest.

Spanning about 13 years from the 1950s to 1960s, The Fabelmans stars Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy, the eldest child of housewife Mitzi (Williams) and brilliant engineer Burt Fabelman (Dano). Enamoured with cinema from an early age, Sammy begins making short films, finding comfort in image-making — which is understandable considering that he has to contend with three younger sisters and a father who occasionally moves the family across the country for better-paying jobs. As for Sammy’s mother, she seems emotionally fragile but, like her son, has an artistic streak, only really able to be herself around Burt’s best friend Bennie (Rogen), who’s a de facto uncle to her kids.

Sharing writing duties with frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, the 75-year-old director doesn’t indulge in cheap nostalgia — to the contrary, The Fabelmans is a measured drama suffused with sorrow. At school Sammy experiences antisemitism, while Mitzi is prone to what used to be known as “episodes,” which leave her unable to get out of bed. Alongside the occasional honeyed remembrances of shooting amateur war films, The Fabelmans focuses on a family with real problems — the kind that can’t get easily resolved, unlike the happy endings of Spielberg’s earliest pictures.

LaBelle bears a slight resemblance to a young Spielberg, playing the character as an insecure adolescent who can’t quite process the stresses in his life. The greatest of these is a growing concern about his mom’s friendship with Bennie, a development that results in some of the film’s most emotionally fraught sequences. But The Fabelmans is commendably fair to both parents, acknowledging their strengths and flaws — and how different aspects of the two characters have helped make Sammy the young man that he is. That said, there’s a special bond between son and mother, and LaBelle’s finest work is alongside Williams, whose Mitzi treats him almost like a peer, perhaps seeing in his creative ambitions the thwarted dreams she’d once harboured for herself.

Mitzi could have easily been the cliched “hysterical” mother, and to be sure the character sometimes does outrageous things, but Williams grounds this troubled soul so that her melodramatic flourishes feel believable. Mitzi is someone who’s never quite tethered to her domestic existence, always slightly wishing to break free, but the performance is so loving that the character’s occasionally selfish impulses are never viewed harshly.

Meanwhile, Dano shines as an ineffectual husband who mostly wants to keep the peace, never entirely supporting what he dismisses as his son’s “hobby.” The Fabelmans doesn’t feature much in the way of screaming matches between the couple, and yet Williams and Dano superbly hint at all the buried tensions that will eventually provoke a crushing reckoning.

The film’s bittersweet textures are mitigated by a few amusing digressions, some of which work better than others. (A sequence involving Sammy’s first romantic relationship is charming but also a bit broad, getting dangerously close to teen-comedy territory.) And then there are the many subtle instances of this veteran director illustrating how Sammy (and, presumably, himself) began to grasp the power of crafting evocative images.

There are no coy references to Spielberg classics in The Fabelmans, but when he does allow for an insider-y Hollywood moment near the end — the eccentric Lynch plays a foundational filmmaker who’s long influenced Spielberg — the scene is so cleverly executed that it hardly feels indulgent. Presumably, audiences will come to The Fabelmans to glean such insights into how Spielberg became Spielberg. But his openhearted film would rather you get to know the parents he loved who left their mark on him — and inspired one of his most touching, mature pictures.

Production companies: Amblin Entertainment, Reliance Entertainment

Worldwide distribution: Universal Pictures (eOne distributing in the UK)

Producers: Kristie Macosko Krieger, Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner

Screenplay: Steven Spielberg & Tony Kushner

Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski

Production design: Rick Carter

Editing: Michael Kahn, Sarah Broshar

Music: John Williams

Main cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle, Jeannie Berlin, David Lynch, Judd Hirsch