When a filmmaker decides to tell a personal story about their life growing up, it can go one of two ways. It can be a nostalgic, candy-coated vision of an idealized childhood, or it can be a warts-and-all endeavor, digging deep to expose their bad family experience and the state of the world at that time.
Writer/director James Gray tries to find the middle ground in his new film, Armageddon Time. Set in Queens, New York, in 1980, the film centers Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a Jewish tween boy with a love of art and a bent toward troublemaking. His mom, Esther (Anne Hathaway), and dad, Irving (Jeremy Strong), have kept him in public school even though his brother, Ted (Ryan Sell), goes to a private school.
Photo by Anne Joyce/Focus Features
Paul strikes up a friendship with Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), one of the few Black kids at his school. Finding common ground over raising the ire of their teacher, whether warranted or not, the two conspire on a number of minor-to-major infractions. Paul is also close with his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), who provides him with pearls of wisdom that come with his age and worldly experience.
On the surface, the film is a type of coming-of-age story as Paul pursues his passion, learns about bigotry, and tries to survive his sometimes-abusive father. Taken on this level, it’s an interesting if uncomplicated narrative. The situations that Paul goes through are typical of a suburban New York kid, with some slight deviations given his choice of friend and inability to stay on the right side of his parents and teacher.
There are several elements that indicate Gray is trying to tell a deeper story. Paul’s family being Jewish is a big part of the film, whether at family dinners or stories about past persecution. And the treatment of Johnny by his teacher and others is an undeniable parallel, with him experiencing subtle and not-so-subtle acts of racism on multiple occasions.
But a few other storytelling choices make it seem as if Gray wants tell an even more expansive allegorical story, as the film’s tagline – “The end of an era. The beginning of everything.” – illustrates. Ronald Reagan, who was running for his first term in 1980, pops up in television clips on a couple of occasions, even referencing his fear of Armageddon in one interview.
Fred Trump (John Diehl) and his daughter Maryanne (Jessica Chastain) are benefactors of the private school, making an appearance in one brief scene (why an Oscar winner was chosen to deliver less than 30 seconds of dialogue is unclear). Fred’s son Donald is not present, but the inclusion of the Trump family at all, especially for the very short time they’re on screen, speaks volumes.
Child actors can be hit-and-miss, but both Repeta and Webb turn in solid performances, making it feel like their characters have a true friendship. Both Hathaway and Strong live up to their reputations, inhabiting their roles fully, although their strong accents might be too much for some. Hopkins, who speaks in his normal voice, doesn’t exactly scream “old Jewish grandfather,” but his excellent acting makes up for that fact.
No matter if you fully grasp Gray’s actual intentions with the film or just take in its basic story, Armageddon Time is one of the best-acted films of the year. At its core, it’s a tale about a family going through a time of change, a universally-relatable idea regardless of where you grew up.
Armageddon Time opens in theaters on November 4.