“This film is a way of bringing my mom and dad back,” Steven Spielberg said to the abundantly appreciative crowd at the Toronto Film Festival on Saturday night. His mother, Leah, died at age 97 in 2017, and his father, Arnold, died in 2020 at age 103. In The Fabelmans, they are represented by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano respectively—and you should surely do some Googling to see how they got the likenesses down.
The reaction to Spielberg’s latest was reportedly rapturous, with TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey eventually telling the crowd to stop applauding and to sit down so they could commence a post-screening discussion.
The Fabelmans is a rarity for Spielberg—a personal story taken directly from his own childhood. It is his fourth collaboration with Tony-winning playwright Tony Kushner, and it is one of the few films in Spielberg’s vast resume in which he is credited as co-screenwriter. On Saturday night he explained that when COVID hit in early 2020, he was left wondering “what was the thing that I need to resolve and unpack about my mom, my dad, and my sisters?”
He added that “this is something I have been thinking about for a long time. I didn’t really know when I was going to get around to this. This is not because I am going to retire and this is my swan song, I promise.” (Indeed, Spielberg, who is famous for having multiple projects in development before selecting his next one, may soon start on a reworking of Bullitt.)
The film also stars Seth Rogen, the relative newcomer Gabriel LaBelle as “Sammy” (a stand-in for young Steven), and features short appearances from Judd Hirsch, Jeannie Berlin, and, in a part designed to make film historians dizzy, David Lynch. The story focuses on a Jewish teen boy growing up in a not-particularly-Jewish part of the United States who slowly recognizes that his family is falling apart, all while he develops his skills as an amateur filmmaker.
Reviews thus far have mostly been extremely positive. Variety compared it positively to Radio Days, and called the movie “a personal account of his upbringing that feels like listening to two and a half hours’ worth of well-polished cocktail-party anecdotes, only better, since he’s gone to the trouble of staging them all for our benefit.” The New York Post called it the best movie of the year and suggested Michelle Williams had now “skyrocket[ed] to the front of the Oscar race with an unforgettable performance.”
In a dissent, The Daily Beast’s critic dismissed the film as “a two-and-a-half-hour therapy session.”
V.F.’s Richard Lawson wrote enthusiastically about the project in the context of generations of moviegoers projecting their own lives onto Spielberg’s stories. “[N]ow, at long last, Spielberg politely shares something of himself, too: a reciprocal response to these decades of conversation that says, Here’s where it all came from, the last piece of the mosaic.”
The first trailer hit Sunday morning. Incidentally, “spiel” is another word for “story” or even “fable.” Eh? Eh?