The Fabelmans [TIFF22 Review]

It feels like a cop-out answer when someone says Steven Spielberg is the greatest living filmmaker, the most inspirational, or why someone fell in love with cinema in the first place. Spielberg has directed 33 films so far, many of which are favourite films by millions. Not many people have not only the long career he has but still come out with some of the best films of the year. It feels like a cop-out answer when someone says Steven Spielberg is the greatest living filmmaker, the most inspirational, or why someone fell in love with cinema in the first place. 

I was born in 1993, a few months before Jurassic Park was released. By this time, Spielberg was one of the biggest names in filmmaking. Growing up alongside the JP franchise, my parents would show me movies like E.T. Extra-Terrestrial or Jaws. I could list an entire filmography here, so I’ll avoid that. Eventually, I had to catch up and still am trying to do so. 

I didn’t realize this when I was watching his films then, but I now see how Spielberg can be a “populist” filmmaker, making things (almost) easily digestible for the general audience. You didn’t need to be a fan of obscure art films to appreciate his, but if you were, you might catch things others didn’t. For one, his compositions are exhilarating. Spielberg instead makes the actors in the frame move into new exciting places for new shots instead of cutting and switching sides is brilliant. It likely saves time for new camera set-ups and may add some rehearsal and blocking time. That is one of the many recurring thoughts that went through my head on both viewings of The Fabelmans. 

The Fabelmans is Spielberg’s memory and recollection of his upbringing, relationship with his parents, his sisters, and film. I would like to discuss some aspects of the plot, but even though it’s based on his life, it might be a spoiler to some. It opens with going to the movies for the first time to see The Greatest Show on Earth and being both traumatized but captivated by a train crash sequence. This led him to make films with his sisters around his house and then with friends. 

What I will say, unsurprisingly, is how everyone in the cast does incredible work. Spielberg has continuously said that the characters in the film are those characters. They are not one-to-one representations of the, but a portrayal of how he remembers them and feels about them so many years removed. During a Q&A at the festival, Seth Rogen (who plays Uncle Benny) was asked how he thought about joining the cast and if he was nervous. To paraphrase, he was, but if Spielberg casts you, you will trust that he knows what he’s doing. Rogen, as Benny, is charming, funny, and sweet. This isn’t to say it is a surprise that Rogen can be these things, but he’s got a huge presence in the film that is rightfully deserved. Paul Dano plays Burt, and Michelle Williams plays Mitzi. The two are Spielberg’s film-version parents. Burt is a computer engineer, so for him, he thought about being inventive, math, and logical about a career path. Mitzi was a pianist but stopped after having children, so for her, the art life is what she followed, her heart and passion. The two pulled and pushed Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle, Steven’s stand-in) as they told him to follow his heart, but not for a “hobby.”

I saw The Fabelmans late, on the second last day of the festival, and at the time, I thought it was incredible. As I thought about it more, I started appreciating it more. By the following day, I had gotten tickets to the People’s Choice screening in case it was something I missed and wanted to watch. The runner up’s were Glass Onion and Women Talking, which I’ve seen (and we’ve reviewed both as well). Of course, The Fablemans won (it’s Spielberg, everyone predicted this after finding out it would be playing in competition at the festival). Watching it again felt like an entirely different experience. Two and a half hours flew by. I picked up on minor details, the stolen glances, the sound design, and so much more. There’s one thing that Speilberg has always done and does well. No character is just alive for that moment. You sense that they are alive and have their own story that led to that place and will continue after. Maybe it’s because they are based on real people, but the truth is, they all felt so alive.

The Fablemans is a treat to those who look up to Spielberg to see where he came from and to make us think about where we can go. While the film is a love letter to filmmaking and cinema, it’s more about passion. Following whatever career path makes your own heart happy.