"Family, art, life — it will tear you in two," a wild-haired Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) advises his young nephew, Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle), midway through The Fabelmans, which premiered last night at the Toronto International Film Festival. He would know; he once put his head in lions' mouths for a living. Sammy doesn't want to join the circus like Boris, but he does very much want to make movies, and Steven Spielberg's latest film turns out to be a deeply personal gaze into another kind of maw: his own biography.
Because it's Spielberg, it's all beautifully, meticulously rendered, and not a little glazed in wistful sentiment: an infinitely tender, sometimes misty ode to the people who raised him and the singular passion for cinema that shaped him. The mist burns away, though, as the movie goes on, in part because Michelle Williams gives such a fine-grained and devastating performance as Sammy's mother, Mitzi, a fierce, fragile woman whose own thwarted dreams have landed her in a life she doesn't recognize. She could have been a world-class concert pianist, or maybe a dancer; instead she's a suburban housewife in early-1950s New Jersey, married to a faultlessly kind man named Burt (Paul Dano), a scientist who adores her, and mother to Sammy and his three younger sisters. Together they share a bustling, cheerfully secular Jewish home — for them, its less a synagogue-on-Shabbat religion than a cultural identity — whose dinner table often includes at least one cantankerous grandmother and, nearly always, Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen).
Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment
Unlike Boris, Bennie is not actually an uncle. He's Burt's best friend and coworker, a jovial plus-one who always seems to be around, even when work takes Burt and the rest of the family across the country to Arizona. (Burt is some kind of near-genius when it comes to computers, or what will one day become computers, and his brain is catnip to companies like IBM.) Bennie's enduring attachment to the Fabelmans, though, may have more to do with Mitzi than anyone has cared to notice. And Sammy sees a lot through the little film camera he's always toting around, a machine that's become a whirring fifth appendage since he first got his hands on his dad's old 8mm as a child and started engineering tiny action thrillers with his model trains. Soon he's graduated from trains and toilet-paper mummies at home to more ambitious efforts, enlisting his Boy Scout troupe in shoot-'em-up Westerns and dramatic, ketchup-bloody war sagas in the Southwest desert.
Another relocation, this time to Northern California, disrupts all that, and lands Sammy in a high school full of "giant sequoias" who have a lot of words, none of them kind, for Jews. But there are also pretty girls, and a new kind of unraveling at home to distract him. Some of this — down to the actual film stock of some of Sammy's productions — may be familiar to dedicated fans who already know the outlines of the director's origin story, and the unhurried, carefully observant script, cowritten with Tony Kushner, toggles gently between comedy and pathos. Kushner is not the only one of his greatest-hits collaborators here: Janusz Kamiński oversees the swooping pans and zooms of the rich cinematography, and John Williams contributes a lofty, glimmering score. As much as it is Spielberg's personal history, The Fabelmans is also a fervent, hand-on-heart testament to the eternal lure of movies, made by one of the foremost magicians of the craft. If it all feels a little sanitized and idealized, it's also consistently lovely — and after 75 years and 34 films, who more than Spielberg has earned the right to revisit his stardust memories? Grade: B+