Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” earned a roaring standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, as the crowd of movie lovers cheered loudly for the Oscar-winning auteur as he made his first appearance at the gathering.
“I’m really glad we came to Toronto,” a visibly moved Spielberg said after taking the stage as the credits rolled.
The director said he was inspired by the COVID pandemic to tell his most personal story yet, a look at his early filmmaking efforts, his childhood in Arizona and Northern California, and the dissolution of his family.
“As things got worse and worse, I felt that if I was going to leave anything behind, what was the thing that I really need to resolve and unpack about my mom, my dad,” Spielberg said.
However, he reassured the crowd at TIFF that despite having made peace with his past, “The Fabelmans” will not serve as his farewell to movies.
“This is not because I’m going to retire and this is my swan song,” he said. “Don’t believe any of that.”
The film started about 15 minutes late, a small miracle given the crush of audience members waiting outside the Princess of Wales theater, because the premiere of “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” had bled into the launch of “The Fabelmans.” Spielberg was introduced by TIFF creative director Cameron Bailey, who said he was awestruck to be introducing the legend (TIFF competed with the Venice and Telluride film festivals to land Spielberg’s latest). Bailey recalled being 12 years old and falling in love with film thanks to work from Spielberg.
The director’s autobiographical drama stars Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen and Gabriel LaBelle as Sam Fabelman, Spielberg’s screen surrogate.
Ahead of the screening, the “Jurassic Park” director estimated that in his 34-film career, “The Fabelmans” is his first ever to officially play in the selection of a film festival, forgetting apparently that “Bridge of Spies” premiered at the New York Film Festival just a few years back. The experience of making this film seemed to cut deeper.
“This film is, for me, a way of bringing my mom and my dad back,” said Spielberg, who dedicated the movie to his mother, Leah. The director’s three sisters — Anne, Nancy and Sue — were all in the audience at “The Fabelmans” premiere.
Breakout moments during the screening included thunderous applause for 87-year-old Judd Hirsch. Playing a great uncle to Sam, Hirsch delivers an unforgettable monologue about the toll an artist pays when it comes to honoring his family. Williams also got big reactions for her tender and generous portrayal of Sam’s mother, a woman with an artistic soul who also struggles with depression.
Bailey returned to host a Q&A following the screening, cutting off a standing ovation at two minutes to get to questions.
The official synopsis for the movie from TIFF reads: “‘The Fabelmans’ is a coming-of-age story about a young man’s discovery of a shattering family secret and an exploration of the power of movies to help us see the truth about each other and ourselves.” The film is based on Spielberg’s own childhood, with Williams and Dano starring as variations of the filmmaker’s parents. Spielberg co-wrote the script with his “Lincoln,” “Munich” and “West Side Story” screenwriter Tony Kushner.
“It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s kind of everything,” Williams told Variety about the project earlier this year. “It’s the muchness of life. We’re trying to reflect all of that.”
“My phone beeped, and I had a message that Steven wanted to talk to me,” Williams added of landing the role based on Spielberg’s mother. “I couldn’t comprehend that he might want to work with me. I thought he had a question or something. Then he got on the Zoom and told me that he wanted me to play this person, his mama.”
And Williams is right because the finished product is a two-and-a-half hour look at the forces that shaped Spielberg, transforming him into one of our preeminent myth makers. “Movies are dreams,” Williams’ character tells Sammy at one point during the movie, and from “Jaws” to “E.T.,” no one has been more adept at spinning fantasies out of celluloid than Spielberg.
“The Fabelmans” ensemble cast also includes Jeannie Berlin, Julia Butters, Robin Bartlett, Keeley Karsten, and, in a cameo that will not be spoiled here, David Lynch. The film is produced by Kristie Macosko Krieger, Spielberg and Kushner
“The Fablemans” is backed by Universal Pictures, which is set to release the film in theaters Nov. 11.