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#TIFF22 Review: The Fabelmans (Special Presentations)

September 14, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

The 2022 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8th to 18th.

Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans is an autobiographical work that finds the filmmaker at his most introspective, drawing upon experiences from his own childhood. And it’s magical. As someone who grew up obsessed with Spielberg and his work, this film sincerely moved me, inspired me, got me choked up, and made me laugh, like all great pictures should do.

The film opens with Sammy Fabelman, the story’s stand-in for Spielberg himself, as a young boy (played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) being taken by his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and father Burt (Paul Dano) to see The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952. The movie sparks something in young Sammy, who starts crashing the new train set that he gets for Hanukkah to recreate what he saw onscreen. This blossoms into the teenage Sammy (played by Gabriel LaBelle) making increasingly ambitious Westerns and World War II movies with his buddies in one of the film’s most fun and purely enjoyable subplots.

The story charts his family’s seismic move from New Jersey to Arizona, and the impact this has on him and his sisters as a child, as well as Sammy’s relationship with his Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen), actually a close friend and co-worker of his engineer father who has been brought into the family. The textured screenplay, co-written by Spielberg and his frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, also explores the antisemitism and bullying that Sammy experiences at school for being Jewish.

This is every inch a Spielberg movie, with all of the warmth and humanity we can expect from him. It’s a love letter to cinema, yes, but also to his mother, whom the film suggests he shared more in common with than he maybe wanted to admit growing up. Williams is in many ways the heart and soul of the movie, delivering a captivating and at times heartbreaking performance that spans both episodes of mania and melancholia, including several bittersweet scenes with Sammy.

Dano does fine work as the well-meaning if slightly oblivious father, while Rogen does exactly what you want him to do as the cool, funny uncle that you start to view differently as you grow up. LaBelle does a good job of carrying the film, morphing into a young Spielberg before our eyes. Judd Hirsch also steals the movie for about fifteen minutes, with his memorable appearance as Sammy’s eccentric Uncle Boris.

Working once again with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the film also allows Spielberg to reaffirm himself as a master at visual storytelling. This includes one bravura, wordless sequence that finds the camera spinning around Sammy as he cuts together 8mm home video footage while his mother plays piano in the background, with him suddenly seeing the footage in a new light and noticing details that he didn’t before. It’s a gut-wrenching sequence brought to the screen with impeccable craft, and just one of many standout scenes in the film.

If you are in any way a Steven Spielberg fan, then The Fabelmans hits all the right notes. It’s an entertaining and deeply poignant coming of age movie that spans years and genres across an always engaging 151 minute running time, while also shedding some light on his personal life and work. It’s fittingly topped off with another sweeping original score by John Williams, and builds to a wonderful final few minutes that will leave movie lovers deeply appreciative. I loved every moment of this film, which just might be the best movie of the year.

Public Screenings:

Saturday, September 10th – 9:15 PM at VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales

Sunday, September 11th – 11:30 AM at Roy Thomson Hall

Wednesday, September 14th – 9:00 PM at Roy Thomson Hall

Friday, September 16th – 4:30 PM at Scotiabank 12

Friday, September 16th – 5:30 PM at VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales

Saturday, September 17th – 11:00 AM at VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales

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