For better and worse, James Gray’s latest is very much a story from his perspective.
Armageddon Time, writer/director James Gray’s eighth feature film, follows a young boy named Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a stand-in for Gray. He’s an unknowing, bratty, artsy kid. He breaks rules, makes fun of his teachers, won’t eat his mother’s cooking. He’s a regular, if not annoying, teenager. Paul’s family is Jewish and living in Queens in the 1980s. They send him to public school while his brother attends private school. They’re constantly hoping to get a leg up for their family amongst a sea of other discriminated families.
Gray’s film, as personal as he’s made, blurs the line between memory and fiction. There’s a sense that Gray wants to remember his childhood with exactness. He wants to get into the minds of his parents, his grandparents, and so forth. Still, everything’s a bit hazy. The film doesn’t outwardly feel like 1980. The only markers placing it are references to the decade’s cultural touchstones. The discrimination, towards Jewish families, towards Black teenagers, towards any non-white people isn’t reserved for that year, that decade, or even that century.
Gray surrounds Repeta with a formidable cast of supporting actors, with Jeremy Strong, Anne Hathaway, and Anthony Hopkins shining as Graff’s parents and grandfather. Strong gives a volatile and violent portrayal of Irving, a man scraping to push his family into a higher economic class who believes in taking his chances and never looking back towards whoever he left in the dust. There’s a sense that he has lived enough life to understand how the world works.
While Hathaway is more than serviceable as Graff’s mother, always bringing a level of gravitas to her performances, Hopkins radiates energy as Aaron Rabinowitz, Paul’s confidante and loving, supporting grandfather. He brings emotional stakes to a film concerned with the grays of morality, acting as guide, friend, mentor, and coach to young Paul. He continues to be an actor of the highest quality, breathing consequence into every scene, weight to a story that has a minor tendency to sporadically trivialize the plight of others.
The recipient of that deficiency is Paul’s only similar-age friend, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a Black student at the public school. He exists in a state of limbo, without support from family members, teachers, or other students. In short, Johnny’s labeled as a lost cause. He’s the only prominent Black character in the film, and Gray’s insistence on Paul’s moral compass, or at minimum his unawareness, can be equated to a sense of white guilt from the director’s own upbringing. Johnny barely has a backstory, forcing him to lean on what little the movie gives. In Armageddon Time, all he has is a friendship with a white, middle-class kid in Paul.
Gray’s film, as personal as he’s made, blurs the line between memory and fiction.
The director attempts to reckon with the stark difference between Johnny and Paul’s circumstances, with his foray into classism amongst those with lower economic status. But he falls short with a limited point-of-view and a sense that Paul is somewhat powerless in his innocence and ignorance. In a late scene between Irving and Paul, the former tells his son how the world works, about the unfairness of it. This becomes the closest Gray comes to thoughtful introspection, to understanding the otherness existing in the world.
Armageddon Time gives Strong, Hathaway, and Hopkins an acting showcase, a chance to steal scenes from one another. It’s a story about family, the 1980s, prejudice, and growing up with a limited worldview. For Gray, there must be some catharsis in telling this story, putting his childhood onto the screen. Luckily, this exercise in memory has substance, and a surprising amount of levity. It’s a purposeful project that many will form a connection to and some will even cry over.
Armageddon Time is October 28 in select theatres.