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TIFF Film Review: ‘The Fabelmans’ is Steven Spielberg at His Funniest, Most Vulnerable, and at the Height of His Powers

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

Wow. When you see a master filmmaker reach into themselves and raise their game, it’s truly something to behold. The Fabelmans is Steven Spielberg showing a whole new bag of tricks, all in service of telling a story not just his own, but for the world over to bear witness to. What could have been seen as, or even dismissed as, navel gazing in lesser hands is instead riveting. The self reflection, baked into a story about the love of filmmaking, as well as the pain of parental strife, fully informs Spielberg as an artist and a man. Make no mistake, though, this is also just an enrapturing movie on its own accords. Playing as arguably the biggest and most high profile World Premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, it has somehow lived up to the massive hype.

The Fabelmans has almost everything you want in a movie. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s hopeful. You run the gamut of emotions, led by strong performances and a master filmmaker operating in peak form. So much of the flick’s early buzz is dominated by the Oscar conversation, and make no mistake, this will be nominated in several categories by the Academy, but it shortchanges just how good a picture this is.

This is the story of Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), an aspiring filmmaker. Ever since his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and father Burt (Paul Dano) took him to his first movie, Sammy has been enthralled by the moving pictures. Encouraged in different ways by his parents, as well as family friend and surrogate uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen), Sammy begins toying with cameras, quickly showing a knack for it. However, Burt, a computer programmer who follows the next job from town to town, has packed them up, with the kids/family headed from New Jersey to Arizona.

Moving west is not just the start of Sammy coming into his own as a budding storyteller, it’s also when the family around him slowly begins falling apart. At the same time, though, there are seminal moments, like a visit from his Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), that drive him forward. It only gets tougher when they eventually move to California, with strains being placed on everyone, especially Mitzi and Sammy, alongside the casual antisemitism of the time. For Sammy, could it be that when everything feels wrong, it will be the movies that save him?

This cast is a joy to watch in action. Gabriel LaBelle is a discovery and a revelation, while Michelle Williams breaks your heart. Paul Dano has the least showy role, but boy does he find the quiet dignity of the paternal figure, flaws and all. Seth Rogen has the simplest role, but he makes Bennie so warm and genuinely caring, it goes a long way to keep you interested in the character. As for Judd Hirsch, he’s only in a few scenes, but his long monologue about show business is an absolute showstopper and, for my money, the scene of the year. Supporting players for the cast include Jeannie Berlin, Julia Butters, Chloe East, Oakes Fegley, David Lynch, and more.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg has made arguably the most enjoyable cinematic therapy session in recent memory. Co-writing with Tony Kushner, this is as funny and as warm as we’ve seen Spielberg be in a while. His direction is occasionally dreamlike, but it completely fits the memories the man is clearly working through. A gentle but luminous score by John Williams, alongside bright cinematography by Janusz Kamiński, is top notch. The Fabelmans has A-list talent in front of and behind the camera, and it shows. Whenever a moment hooks you in this two and a half hour film, and a moment will hook you, there’s no letting go afterwards. Kushner and especially Spielberg have made something with deep meaning, not just to the director, but to audiences as well.

The Fabelmans is a glorious achievement by Steven Spielberg. This is the filmmaker laid bare on the screen. The joys, the pain, and the love of telling a story through the lens of a movie camera shines through. I was brought to tears and you likely will be too. Not only is this a highlight of TIFF, it’s one of the highlights of 2022, in general. This movie is not to be missed. It’s brilliant, brilliantly entertaining, and a crowning achievement for a legendary storyteller.

SCORE: ★★★★

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Written by Joey Magidson

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