Synopsis – A deeply personal coming-of-age story about the strength of family and the generational pursuit of the American Dream.
My Take – Considering how we’ve all gone through the phase of being adolescent, distracted and pubescent, filmmakers keep revisiting their version of coming-of-age stories, hoping to connect strongly with each one of us. Mainly as an audience, we have a fixation with exploring themes of the past and their influences on us as children through, often, rose-colored glasses.
However, this latest from writer-director James Gray (Ad Astra, The Lost City of Z), turns the quintessential coming-of-age story on its head.
Acting as his most personal film to date, here, director Gray returns to the ’80s Queens milieu, where he was raised, but instead of a simple charming nostalgia trip he has more in his mind. Most importantly, though the film is a loving re-creation of the time, he doesn’t seem very pleased with his own past.
And instead of just glorifying the place he knows very well, he has made an uncommonly tough-minded film about the deceptively wide-reaching chronicle of the American moral crisis and faces the realities of racism and privilege. Resulting in an intimate, poignant, and preternaturally clear-eyed family drama that despite its nature is actually quite refreshing.
Yes, the screenplay isn’t exactly the most original, but his approach really hit homes especially when it dips into immigrant experience. Mainly as director Gray has built into the form of the film a quiet exploration of generational failure and seems to have zero interest in letting himself off the hook even now. Sure, his films are of an acquired taste, but without a doubt, this one is another rock-solid effort from one of the most consistent directors out there and is worth checking out, even if it’s a pretty harsh ride.
Set in Queens, New York, 1980, the story follows Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a Jewish 12-year-old sixth-grader with his head in the clouds, more interested in drawing superheroes and acting as class clown than schoolwork. He forms a friendship with fellow dreamer Johnny (Jaylin Webb) who harbors ambitions of working for NASA and is similarly penalized by their teacher, who brands him a troublemaker seemingly for being the only Black student in their class.
Paul’s disinterest in school causes tension between his frazzled parents, PTA-president mom Esther (Anne Hathaway) and boiler-repairman father Irving (Jeremy Strong), who rely on the close relationship between Paul and his kindly maternal grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) to get through to their younger son. Who instead encourages his grandson’s creativity, ambition and speaks of doing the morally upright thing and has terrifying stories about how their Jewish family fled pogroms in Ukraine.
But as tensions mount within the family, Paul struggles to navigate the rough terrain of adolescence, realizing that dreams aren’t enough to subside on, forming his own views and takes on society.
Yes, there isn’t much of a central story here, but the film has much to say about race, upward mobility, and the American dream and who can participate in it. Familial dynamics have always been at the heart of James Gray’s film-making; with every new film comes the speculation it might be his most personal work yet. Here too he relies upon the accumulation of small interactions and incidents to slowly form a portrait of an unforgiving world. He cuts from Paul and Johnny’s slowly developing friendship to life at Paul’s home, where the conversation encompasses everything from the structure of New York’s bridges to the Holocaust.
He does a wonderful job of immersing us in the everyday bustle of the Graffs’ home, where relatives are always coming over for dinner. They’ve worked hard to make a good living and earn a level of social standing in their community. Given their Jewish immigrant roots, they also know the challenges of assimilating into American culture. At extended gatherings, Paul’s relatives share grim stories about the anti-Semitic violence their family fled from in Ukraine.
But director Gray doesn’t shy away from exposing their own casual prejudice: We also hear some of those same relatives spout derogatory remarks about Black people around the dinner table. His portrait of his family is damning but human. There’s a beautifully written and acted sequence in which Paul meets his grandfather in the park to launch a model rocket and the old man delivers a tender, heartfelt speech about the importance of tolerance and standing up against bullies.
Here, we’re drawn into the urgency of an aging patriarch who’s trying to reach across a multi-generational divide while he still can. In a film by a less intelligent filmmaker, it’d be either way more obvious that Paul gets the message or way more obvious that he doesn’t. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film that captured family dynamics with this much unsparing honesty.
Ultimately, the film is about the dissolution of Johnny from Paul’s life. When the two boys are caught smoking pot in the school bathroom, Paul is sent off to the private school his older brother Ted (Ryan Sell) is attending and their friendship tragically changes. Though some might see Johnny as a regrettable stereotype, the Black character who suffers grievously so that his white friend can learn a hard-hitting lesson. But director Gray has no interest in dispensing reassurance or uplift. He’s made an angry, despairing film about one boy’s disillusionment with the injustice of the world and his own silent complicity with it.
While the focus is Paul’s immediate environment, the film doesn’t ignore the world around it. Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign – much to the disgust of Irving – plays out in the background. We see Paul’s school being visited by Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain), who tells the assembled pupils that they are the elite-in-waiting forming a disturbing Republican rally cry. Sure, at worst the film feels slightly contrived towards its conclusion, with things dramatized a little bit more than they needed to be. But still, it’s a means to an end, with the young Paul learning the hard way about hypocrisy, injustice and privilege.
Performance wise, Banks Repeta delivers an outstanding debut, balancing youthful exuberance and silliness with a real emotional depth. Repeta even manages to hold his own in every scene, and the film is powered by his strength and willingness to capture Paul’s less desirable traits. Anne Hathaway does her finest acting in some time as Paul’s gentler but more resilient mother. Jeremy Strong get to show his range as a stern, emotionally distant father, however, it is Anthony Hopkins as the most lovable character in the film. He’s portrayed as wise and almost saintly, and Hopkins delivers a marvelous performance.
Jessica Chastain appears in a slightly bizarre, off-putting cameo. In other roles, Jaylin Webb, Ryan Sell, Tovah Feldshuh, Domenick Lombardozzi, Dane West, Jacob MacKinnon, Andrew Polk and John Diehl are effective. On the whole, ‘Armageddon Time’ is a solid and inspiring coming of age story that delves into important topics.
Directed – James Gray
Rated – R
Run Time – 114 minutes