To Steven Spielberg life has always been outside of it his films. in ET he filters his feelings about his parents’ divorce through the eyes of a child who meets an alien. He wrestles with questions of paternity and family guilt in everything from Close encounters of the third kind to AI to catch Me If You Can. His talent has been legendary since he was just a rookie hanging around the Universal backlot, but his own story has only been used as a metaphor.
The Fabelman family abandons metaphor for something resembling truth. The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, is Spielberg’s look at his own childhood, a career-long mission, and a loving portrait of his flawed parents, Leah Adler and Arnold Spielberg. Sure, the main character is named Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), not Steven Spielberg, but what you’re watching is the director telling his own story before anyone else has a chance to.
The Fabelman family begins with a trip to the movies on January 10, 1952 in wintry New Jersey, where Spielberg spent some of his formative years while his father worked for RCA. Sammy’s parents, Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams), rouse their timid young son by explaining how movies work down to the frame rate. “Movies are dreams, doll, that you never forget,” his mother says before they go to see them The Greatest Show on Earth and his obsession, specifically with a series of train wrecks, begins. (You can watch Spielberg discuss his real-life experience by watching Cecil B. DeMille’s Oscar-winning here.) What follows is the evolution of an artist and his Jewish American family in mid-century America.
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Sam’s father is a savvy computer engineer who views his son’s filmmaking as a hobby. Meanwhile, Mitzi is a dreamer with an infectious energy, prone to getting stuck in tornadoes and dancing in a nightgown. She’s a talented pianist who became a housewife because it was expected of her, and although she loves her children dearly, you can tell that her passions are straining at the seams of the life she’s created for herself. Other characters drift in and out of Sam’s orbit – his close family friend Benny (Seth Rogen), who captivates all members of the Fabelman clan with his charm; his real uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), an artist with an old provincial accent who teaches Sam how art and family can be at odds with each other.
If you are wondering how much of The Fabelman family really happened, the answer is that almost everything probably did to some degree. It’s a piece of memories, filled with the little details that can only exist in the mind of someone who was there—Mizzy’s huge red fingernails, for example, tapping on the piano keys.
“I just wanted to tell a story that was completely honest to my recollection,” Spielberg explained at a press conference in Toronto. “I’m not saying all my memories are 100 percent accurate, but as far as I can remember, I wanted to tell a story that best reflected my experience growing up with my sisters and their experience growing up with me and my mom and dad and Uncle Benny. The Fabelman family” arc revolves around the breakup of Mitzi and Burt’s marriage, but it’s also an episodic narrative that follows the Fabelmans—Sammy and his three sisters, just like Spielberg and his three sisters—as they move from New Jersey to Arizona to California for his father’s work.
Spielberg wrote his Roman key with his regular collaborator, Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, who also contributed to Munich, Lincolnand soonest West Side Story. Spielberg joked that Kushner was actually his therapist, as they built the script from stories from his childhood on Zoom before the COVID-19 vaccines were released. It was the pandemic that made Spielberg decide it was time to start telling this story, his first screenwriting credit in more than 20 years. “I didn’t know where this was going,” he said of the public health crisis. “And I thought, this is something I have to get out of myself now.”
When it came time for production, putting his childhood on screen also meant that Spielberg had to recreate some of his earliest efforts, the 8mm productions he made as a child. Among these highlights included in The Fabelman family is Escape to nowherehis early attempt at a World War II picture that he actually showed the cast Saving Private Ryan while making this blockbuster about the same conflict. (Spielberg would later win his second Oscar for Best Director for the film.) Spielberg said at TIFF that he strives to make new versions of his old experiments more effective. “I worked very hard to make sure that the entire reproduction of an 8mm shot as a child was better than an 8mm shot as a child,” he said with a laugh. “The angles were better.” The Fabelman family‘ recreation of Escape to nowherebearing the same title, will naturally remind Private Ryan, and Spielberg repeats his own work elsewhere in his latest film. It even starts with the kid Sammy looking up at a movie screen with a clear Spielberg’s facethat characteristic expression of astonishment.
There is, of course, an aspect of self-mythologizing The Fabelman family, as in any project that walks the line between memoir and invention. In the film, Spielberg is as clear-eyed about the sorrow of his early life as he is about the magic of cinema, his greatest passion. And while he doesn’t want to reveal exactly what is history and what is fiction, there is one scene that he says is pure fact. There is a sequence where Sam meets the great director John Ford, played here by another great director, David Lynch. “I can say that the scene with John Ford happened to me word for word, nothing more, nothing less,” he said.
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