Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” is the movie every fall film festival was dying to have, but only Toronto got it. And at the Saturday-night premiere, the collective excitement was making people lose their minds.
It wasn’t just the enthusiastic audience, many of whom had come straight from the well-received premiere of the “Knives Out” sequel “Glass Onion.” And it wasn’t just the giddiness of Cameron Bailey, who runs the Toronto International Film Festival, as he introduced the filmmaker for the first time. Even Spielberg himself got carried away in the madness.
“I’m really glad we came to Toronto!” exclaimed the 75-year-old director, noting that this would be the first time a film of his had played at a film festival. That claim would appear to sweep away the New York Film Festival showings of “Bridge of Spies” and “Lincoln,” the Cannes premieres of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “The BFG,” and the South by Southwest bow of “Ready Player One,” but hey, sometimes you’ve got to clear the table before you can set it.
And at least his lie felt emotionally true, since the stakes were so significant: By landing “The Fabelmans,” Toronto could fortify itself after two pandemic-diminished years, while Spielberg could claim the friendliest possible audience for his most personal film yet.
Written by the director and his frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, “The Fabelmans” is an only slightly fictionalized retelling of Spielberg’s own coming-of-age. Sammy Fabelman (played as a teenager by Gabriel LaBelle) is a movie-mad kid who stages increasingly elaborate short films that star his sisters, classmates and semi-supportive parents. His dad, Burt (Paul Dano), is too swept up in his computer-programming job to understand Sammy’s artistic inclinations, but his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), is a free spirit who never got to realize her dreams of working as a pianist and encourages Sammy to follow his bliss.
Their mother-son bond is strong, and when Sammy films her dancing on a family trip and later shows her the edited footage, Mitzi beams. “You see me,” she says. But Sammy sometimes sees too much: As he gets older, he notices that Mitzi’s strong bond with her husband’s best friend (Seth Rogen) borders on an emotional affair. And as the family moves from New Jersey to Arizona and then finally to California, the ties that bind begin to fray.
I found “The Fabelmans” to be only secondarily Spielberg’s origin story; primarily, it’s a look-at-what-she-can-do Michelle Williams vehicle, and the actress really goes for it, attacking this part like someone who knows she’s been handed her signature role. Based on Spielberg’s late mother, Leah, Mitzi is a dramatic personality, prone to flights of fancy and intense mood swings, and at any given moment, she’ll laugh, cry, sing or pack the kids into the car for an impromptu tornado chase. You love her, but she’s a lot — on this, the viewer and Sammy both agree — and Williams finds exactly the right moments to dial back the bigness and remind you that there is something private and vulnerable at the core of this very outgoing woman.
Spielberg told the Toronto crowd that he’d had Williams in mind to play his mom ever since he saw her work in “Blue Valentine” (2010), which earned Williams the second of her four Oscar nominations; if she is campaigned as a supporting actress for “The Fabelmans” (as I suspect she will be, despite her ample screen time), this could very well propel the well-respected 42-year-old to her first win, just a year after Spielberg’s “West Side Story” actress Ariana DeBose topped that same race.
Spielberg films always have plenty of Oscar upside, and “The Fabelmans” will be a strong contender in the picture and directing categories (and could even score a nod for Judd Hirsch, who puts in a scene-stealing cameo as Mitzi’s uncle), but the film is gentler, shaggier and more intimate than some of his other awards-season juggernauts, and there’s no need to oversell it at this early date. Even Spielberg, sensing all the hype in the room, sought to downplay speculation that “The Fabelmans” served as any sort of magnum-opus finale.
“This is not because I’m going to retire and this is my swan song,” he told Toronto. “Don’t believe any of that!”