Film Review - Armageddon Time

Banks Repeta, left, and Anthony Hopkins in a scene from “Armageddon Time.” Anne Joyce/Focus Features via AP

In his cinematic memoir “Armageddon Time,” the filmmaker James Gray unpacks his early influences with the kind of uncommonly sensitive and keen perception that he has employed throughout his body of work, which has evolved from crime thrillers (“Little Odessa,” “The Yards,” “We Own The Night”) to historical dramas (“The Immigrant,” “The Lost City of Z”) to existential sci-fi explorations of love, existence and family (“Ad Astra”).

In this childhood coming-of-age drama, set in 1980 in his hometown of Queens, New York, Gray manages to touch on all of these previous genre excursions — it’s a period piece, with childish experiments into mischief and criminal behavior, set against the backdrop of space exploration and a fascination with NASA.

Gray lays out the cultural influences swirling around Paul Graff (a remarkable Banks Repeta), his ostensible avatar, an art-obsessed sixth-grader who is in a transitional impressionistic moment, graduating from comic books to Kandinsky, from the Beatles to Sugarhill Gang. But there are bigger influences than just the artistic looming in Paul’s life –  people who teach him a few of the hard truths about the world and how one should strive to show up in it.

One is his grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), a gentle yet proper Englishman, whose mother was a Ukrainian Jew who escaped the pogroms in her village by fleeing to Liverpool. He is one of the few adults who shows Paul unconditional kindness and support, only asking in return that Paul try to “be a mensch” and stand up for those who have less than him.

The other is Paul’s friend Johnny (a devastating Jaylin Webb), whom he meets on the first day of sixth grade at P.S. 173, under the stern and uncaring eye of their teacher Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk). Johnny, who is Black, is a class clown who has been held back, and almost immediately, Paul starts to see the ways in which he manages to evade the punishment that rains down on Johnny, having already been deemed a lost cause.

Film Review - Armageddon Time

Jaylin Webb, right, and Michael Banks Repeta in a scene from “Armageddon Time.” Focus Features via AP

“Armageddon Time” is a memory of a specific place at a specific time, recreated in the costumes and production design, captured in its natural state by Darius Khondji’s camera. Time, place and character are embodied with a stunning physicality (and emotional potency), especially by Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong, who play Paul’s parents Esther and Irving with incredible attention to detail in their note-perfect accents and mannerisms. There’s a refreshing eclecticism that reflects the melting pot that is Queens at this time: the titles are in graffiti font, the soundtrack bounces from the Clash (the film’s title is a riff on their track “Armagideon Time”) to Tchaikovsky to the Ohio Players.

But the story of “Armageddon Time” is a nuanced exploration of race and class privilege, and how that functions in young Paul’s life as he starts to become aware of the larger forces that separate people from each other. As he enters sixth grade, he is an innocent who just wants to befriend the funny kid in class, but as the year progresses and their friendship deepens, these forces pull them apart. An incident with a joint has far different consequences for the two boys: Johnny ends up in special ed, leading him to drop out, while it lands Paul in a private school at the behest of (and with financial help from) his grandparents, where kids easily reel off racial slurs, and stern board member Fred Trump (John Diehl) stalks the halls. The two boys are pulled further and further apart, one set on a path to success, enabled by family support, the other cast into the jaws of the system.

Repeta’s performance, appropriately twitchy and kiddish, bounces off Webb, as the soulful and sweet Johnny, a kid broken and hardened by the world around him. Repeta’s strength as a performer is in how he reacts to and processes information, taking in everything around him: the art, the music, the TV news and witnessing his friend’s situation become more and more dire.

Gray’s script of remembrance and observation is deeply personal, subtle, but clear-eyed in the way that it presents how privilege functions for Paul, as both an unfair leg up in an unfair world, and as a generational gift, a responsibility that he has no choice but to run with, and be thankful for. “Armageddon Time” never casts judgment, it just presents things as they are, as unjust as they may be, but with Grandpa Aaron’s guidance always ringing in Paul’s ears.

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