Jaylin Webb (left) and Banks Repeta in the new film Armageddon Time, written and directed by James Gray.
Photo: Focus Features/Courtesy of Focus Features
Director/writer James Gray doesn’t take it easy.
From the historical epic The Lost City of Z to the emotional sci-fi film Ad Astra — as well as dramas like The Immigrant and The Yards — Gray makes films aimed squarely at adults with little regard for breadth box office success. This is particularly risky in the post-COVID cinema landscape, where films like King Richard, The Last Duel, The Many Saints of Newark and Cyrano have not found large audiences in theaters.
But that hasn’t stopped Gray, whose latest project, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story Armageddon Time (premiering Friday), doesn’t fit neatly into a marketing box. This is a youth tale that doesn’t bask in the glow of nostalgia, but instead poses tough questions for its characters and audience. (Also, it probably doesn’t help that the title makes it sound like a misguided, earth-destroying meteor was involved.)
Banks Repeta (“The Black Phone”) plays Paul Graff, a sixth grader at Public School 173 in Queens, New York in 1980. A constant drawing artist at heart, he is a bit precocious for his own good. Old school teacher Mr. Turkletaub (Andrew Polk) doesn’t appreciate his talent and punishes him along with another class wrecker, Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), who only seems to care about the space program. Thus begins an interracial friendship between Jewish-American Paul and African-American Johnny that will test their mettle as well as the centrist-liberal values of Paul’s family, who tsk-tsk about the election of Ronald Reagan but themselves about Paul’s attachment to Teasing Johnny, someone they consider a bad influence, and the increasing enrollment of black students at Public School 173.
Above all, they fear that Paul won’t live up to the standard set by his annoying older brother, Ted (Ryan Sell), who attends an elite private school, the Kew-Forest School, and is on his way to bigger and better.
But Paul’s parents aren’t just caricatures. As complexly played by Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway (both strong performers), working-class Irving and Esther find themselves sandwiched between their greatest generation – grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), the kindly, wise family patriarch who represents the closer to the genocidal Horrors of mid-century Europe – and the changing world Paul is growing up in. Irving acknowledges that there is no way he can offer the wisdom and guidance that Aaron offers, and he doesn’t hesitate to unleash the rage of corporal punishment on Paul.
With the possible exception of Aaron, there are no heroes here. All of this adds up to a complex family portrait that captures a time and place based on lived-in characters, not needle drops and pop culture shouts. (Though Johnny’s anticipation of an upcoming Sugar Hill Gang concert connects the film to the emerging hip-hop culture in New York City at the time.) Brief appearances by Jessica Chastain as Donald Trump’s sister, Maryanne Trump, and John Diehl as Trump’s father, Fred may seem like stunt plotting, but according to an interview with Gray in The New York Times, both Trumps showed up at Kew-Forest when Gray was a student there.
Rated R: For strong language, underage drug use
Duration: 115 minutes
Where: Opens across Houston on November 4th
**** (of 5)
Coming at a time when blatant anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise, Armageddon Time is a good reminder that the fabric of America has many threads, but pulling one forcefully can unravel the whole enterprise. It’s a message that deserves to be heard, given how films aimed at adults have fared at the box office lately, it may not just fall on deaf ears, but empty theaters.