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Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Fabelmans’ Is a Small Movie with Big Awards Potential

The director received a rock star welcome at TIFF as audiences embraced his first screenwriting credit for one of his movies since "Close Encounters."

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 21: Steven Spielberg attends the 2022 TCM Classic Film Festival Opening Night 40th Anniversary Screening of "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial…" at TCL Chinese Theatre on April 21, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Steven Spielberg

Getty Images

If any movie deserved its hyperbolic standing ovation on the festival circuit this year, Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” was it. When the director took the stage of the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, he received the thunderous response to more than 50 years of filmmaking, not just the passion project that recounts the beginning of that journey.

Many prominent directors have made personal projects about their youth in recent times, from Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” to James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” and Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light,” but only Spielberg could have made a movie with such an explicit relationship to his own celebrated filmography, and the warm reception is likely to follow him through awards season.

Spielberg’s career has gone through many phases, but “The Fabelmans” stands out his most contained and intimate movie, a semi-autobiographical drama about ambitious teen Sammy Fabelman (newcomer Gabriel LaBelle) as he discovers his love for movies in tandem with the divorce of his parents (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams). Expect the Academy to embrace one of its most prominent members for his late-period look in the mirror.

While teen period of Spielberg’s life has become part of the lore that he funneled into his movies — “E.T.” looms large here — he has never been more explicitly present in his work. He even co-wrote the screenplay with his recurring collaborator Tony Kushner, marking the first time the director has a writing credit on a movie he directed since “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” more than 20 years ago.

While Spielberg made history last year as the only director to receive Best Director nominations across six decades, he has never received a nomination for screenwriting. The movie is positioned to elbow its way into a crowded Best Original Screenplay field that includes everything from Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Todd Field’s “TÁR,” and Billy Eichner’s “Bros.” With a score by John Williams and Janusz Kaminski’s usual elegant lensing, “The Fabelmans” boasts top-shelf crafts to support its small-scale narrative. More than that, the movie will stand out in a wide-open Best Picture field for the way it celebrates the cathartic power of the movies.

The Fabelmans

“The Fabelmans”

Universal Pictures

Despite some clunky and overly earnest moments, “The Fabelmans” explains how filmmaking offered Spielberg a lifeline when he needed it the most. A key arc finds the aspiring director coming to terms with his parents’ troubled marriage and the unexpected way that his mother’s affair with a close family friend (Seth Rogen) complicates their household. Sammy’s camera helps him make sense of his family even as it leads him to tell new stories. After opening with his first exposure to movie magic at a screening of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the movie illustrates how that formative moment established Spielberg’s lifelong relationship to the medium.

Spielberg arrived in Toronto with a rock star’s welcome, as hundreds of fans chanted his name as he walked the red carpet. Onstage at the theater after the screening, Spielberg said he started considering the possibility of unearthing this experience as a movie while working with Kushner on “Lincoln.” (There seems to be some disagreement about the timeline, as Kushner told IndieWire earlier in the evening that discussion of the project started when they collaborated together on “Munich.”) “Tony kind of performed the role of my therapist,” Spielberg said.

The idea was tabled for years, but the pandemic created a new urgency. “When COVID hit, we all felt fear,” Spielberg said. “I felt if I was going to leave anything behind, what did I need to resolve?” However, he pushed back on any impression that “The Fabelmans” was meant to close out his career. “It’s not because I’ve decided to retire and this is my swan song,” he said. “Don’t believe any of that.”

The deaths of his parents also motivated him to complete this project: His mother Leah died in 2017, followed by the death of his father in 2020 at the age of 103.

“This film is a way of bringing my mom and dad back,” he said. “That was worth making this film.” He also singled out his three sisters, all of whom were in attendance, noting that the project “brought them closer to me than I thought was even possible.” The final credit of the movie reads, “For Leah.”

There has been skepticism about some of the movie’s casting decisions, in particular Michelle Williams as Spielberg’s very Jewish mother, but the actress delivers a sensitive performance that could bring her awards attention of her own. (Spielberg said he’s been interested in working with Williams ever since he saw “Blue Valentine.”) Dano said that he participated in Zoom conversations with Spielberg over several months to learn more about his father and understand, as he put it, “How do you capture a life lived?”

That question is a challenging one for Hollywood figure whose career has been part of the public record for so long. It’s a tricky commercial bet for Universal, which releases it November 11: For anyone who’s not invested in Spielberg’s personal story, the drama registers as familiar coming-of-age terrain.

As a result, Universal has taken a delicate approach: Unlike many major fall titles, the movie only screened for TIFF programmers, leaving their counterparts at Telluride, Venice, and New York uncertain about the outcome. Now the studio must sort out the next steps of the promotional process with a press-shy Spielberg who may or may not want to throw his full weight into a campaign. He’ll return to the spotlight when “The Fabelmans” closes AFI Fest in November.

Even onstage at TIFF, Spielberg was coy about unpacking every aspect of the movie. While “The Fabelmans” deals head-on with the anti-semitism Spielberg experienced when his family moved to Arizona, the director downplayed that element in the Q&A. “Anti-semitism isn’t a governing force in my life,” he said. “It wasn’t meant to be a theme in the film.”

His Jewish identity is a different story. The movie also includes a scene-stealing Judd Hirsch as Sammy’s grouchy great-1uncle, a veteran of the silent era who gives the young man some essential advice, and a hilarious recollection of his high school romance with a Christian girl seemingly aroused by his Jewish identity. “I like the easy way that Jewishness lives in this movie,” Kushner said from the stage. “It’s not a problem. It’s who they are.”

More than anything, “The Fabelmans” radiates with the joy of filmmaking at a young age. This includes scenes of DIY film shoots that the young Sammy assembles with his friends with some innovative lo-fi special effects. “It was really cool to shoot the behind-the-scenes stuff,” Spielberg said. “It was great to do it over.”

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