James Gray’s love letter to his childhood is a sad and challenging one.
“Armageddon Time” is inspired by writer/director James Gray’s own childhood in Queens, New York, and when I attended a special screening and Q&A, he couldn’t be more insightful about his life. And he also picks a terrific cast to remind himself of the life has experienced and the lessons he’s learned.
It’s also a coming-of-age story where a boy is less focused on his studies and more focused on his art-one of which would humiliate his teacher and others aren’t the class assignments he was given. His parents think it’s a hobby, but only he and his grandpa believe it could give him a future. Of course, if he doesn’t focus on his schoolwork, then that would be a difficult for him to have an art career.
The boy who’s supposed to be James Gray is named Paul Graff (Banks Repta), and he has a struggling relationship with his Jewish-American family, in which he only relate to his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins). He’s the kind of old-timer, who loves what his grandson has to say, and one who loves shooting model rockets in the park. In a way, he kind of reminds me of the spirit and joy of my own grandfather, even though we’re not Jewish. But that’s beside the point.
Besides the art career, he also has a friend named Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), who has been held back twice, lives with his grandma in a shabby place, and often drops F bombs at his teacher. He’s an African-American boy, who begins to succumb to the stereotypes, especially when he shares a joint with Paul at school.
His mother (Anne Hathaway) forbids him from seeing Johnny again, his father (Jeremy Strong) beats him, and both of them make their final decision of sending him to the same boarding school as his older brother Ted (Ryan Sell). And that boarding school is run by Donald Trump’s sister Maryanne (Jessica Chastain).
There are a few overwhelming scenes like when Paul wants to order dumplings instead of having his mother’s pasta for dinner. And there’s also a scene when the father beats the boy, and tells him to stop crying. I hate “We have plenty of food here” or “Stop Crying” in general. I don’t care if you have a problem with that.
But apart from this unnecessary elements, “Armageddon Time” is well-acted and well-paced thanks to Gray’s direction. In his first feature since “Ad Astra,” he draws the audience into his own childhood, and he gives us some fine, young actors, who are able to transcend within their characters. Repta has a tone that’s often reserved and emotional, while Webb has the right kind of attitude when he acknowledges the time period, which regards race and class. Both their characters are often rude, but they also have their vulnerabilities.
As for the adult actors, Hopkins offers strong value as the grandfather who connects well with the young, main protagonist. He meets well with age, and still provides his memorable words. And Strong as the father uses his emotions and dialogue in ways I’ve never seen from him before. He knows how to use his anger, and he knows how to make an uplifting monologue.
Sitting through “Armageddon Time” has its challenges, as we see how Gray represents his childhood, and how he acknowledges the prejudice and hardships of his family’s roots and life in Brooklyn. This is not a history movie about the filmmaker; it’s a reflection that often shines and often depresses you. At times, it’s difficult to watch, and at other times, it’s understandable.
In Select Theaters This Friday