Every director, it seems, has a deeply personal coming-of-age story to tell, from Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” to Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” to Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma.” And lately, every Toronto International Film Festival has made one of those films a centerpiece of its lineup. Last year, it was Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” which won TIFF’s audience award and went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture; this year, it’s Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” which had its world premiere on Saturday night in the Visa Screening Room at the Princess of Wales Theatre.
Based on Spielberg’s childhood in New Jersey (briefly), Phoenix (longer) and Northern California (for a stormy stretch in high school), “The Fabelmans” is a sweet look back at a boy who was transfixed by the movies from the moment he saw “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 1952, and who started his own adventures in filmmaking with the help of his dad’s camera and a Lionel train set in the basement. Spielberg — or his alter ego in this film, Sammy Fabelman — got a lot better as he went along, and so does this movie: It feels a little too light and even occasionally uncertain in the early going, but picks up steam, becomes deeper and more moving and absolutely nails the ending.
That’s partly because of the abundant affection that Spielberg clearly feels for the material, partly because co-screenwriter Tony Kushner may have helped cut back on the schmaltz factor that sometimes hampers this master filmmaker and partly because of a cast headed by Michelle Williams in a rich and haunting performance as the free-spirited but troubled Mitzi Fabelman, a stand-in for Spielberg’s mother, Leah.
Shot by Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, “The Fabelmans” initially views cinema through a rose-colored lens, as young Sammy sits between his parents in a giant 1950s movie palace and then sits in the car, wide-eyed and speechless, during the ride home. Sammy’s dad, Burt (Paul Dano), is a gentle and didactic math and science whiz who will explain scientific principles for a lot longer than anyone cares to listen; his mom plays piano and dances and uses paper plates and plastic silverware because it’s easier than doing the dishes.
Cinematic coming-of-age stories have given us lots of big Jewish families sitting around tables talking over each other and being lovingly loud, and Spielberg enters this particular arena with a light touch, setting the hubbub to jaunty jazz and giving us montages of young Sammy’s initial efforts as a director and editor. There’s his own take on the train crash scene from “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the horror movie for which he used up all the toilet paper in the house for mummy wrappings and the increasingly elaborate Western and war-movie recreations of a boy (Mateo Zoryna Francis-Deford), and then a young man (Gabriel LaBelle, who plays Sam for most of the movie and is terrific), who somehow has a knack for getting things on screen.
At one point, a teenage Sam (by this point he prefers not to be called Sammy) watches his own work and mutters, “Fake. Totally fake.” And for a minute, you could find yourself wondering how self-aware that comment might be, as “The Fabelmans” feels a little heightened, a little light, a little slapstick at times — all of it deliberate, of course, because you know Spielberg doesn’t stage car scenes using rear and side projections unless he wants to conjure up the artificiality of that technique.
But after about an hour of the film’s near two-and-a-half hour running time, Judd Hirsch shows up as Uncle Boris, who once worked in silent films and recognizes a kindred spirit in Sam: “We’re junkies,” he tells Sam. “Art is our drug.” Hirsch just about steals the movie in a single five-minute scene; it’s not just that he brings a burst of energy (which the movie’s already got in abundance), but his fast-talking blitzkrieg is so irresistible that the Toronto premiere audience erupted in applause when Uncle Boris got in a cab and drove off.
And not long after Boris dive-bombs Sam’s life, a lengthy sequence in which Sam edits footage from a family camping trip is equally stunning. As he’s putting together the film he shot in the woods, Sam begins to notice that there’s too much intimacy and longing in the glances and body language between his mom and “Uncle Bennie,” his father’s best friend (Seth Rogen). Set to Mitzi performing mournful music on the piano, the sequence deepens and darkens the movie and gives it a welcome gravity.
The realization of what might be going on with his mother detonates in Sam’s life and drives him away from moviemaking when the family moves to Northern California for Burt’s new job. The focus turns to Mitzi’s growing depression and to Sam being bullied by a pair of anti-Semitic jocks and courted by a girl who wants him to pray to Jesus before kissing her.
The film’s homestretch is not only a showcase for one of Williams’ most powerful and moving performances, it’s a mature and assured example of a filmmaker masterfully mixing moods and paying off the family story, the filmmaker-finds-his-power story and everything else you might want to see pay off. It does so with a smile, a wink, a couple of hilariously self-referential lines and a priceless cameo by David Lynch, among other touches.
The film shows a light touch that doesn’t detract from the very real depths that are being explored. That “The Fabelmans” is one of Spielberg’s most personal movies was never in doubt; that it’s also one of his most original and most satisfying in years is a welcome bonus.