‘Armageddon Time’: Schoolyards, antisemitism, and the shaping of a life

Anne Joyce/Focus Features/AP
Banks Repeta (left) and Anthony Hopkins star in "Armageddon Time," a semi-autobiographical film from writer-director James Gray, set in 1980s New York City.

James Gray, one of the best and most undervalued writer-directors of his generation, has made his first “personal” movie.

The semi-autobiographical “Armageddon Time” takes place in 1980 in the New York City borough of Queens, and follows 11-year-old Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) as he attempts to navigate the tumultuous travails of school and his close-knit Jewish family. Unlike most movies that draw on a director’s life, “Armageddon Time” is rarely rose-colored. Paul’s story is situated within a larger context of injustices, especially anti-Black racism and antisemitism.

Paul is identified early on in his sixth grade public school class as a “troublemaker.” He’s caught drawing an unflattering caricature of his bullying teacher (Andrew Polk). What you notice, though, is that the sketch is expertly rendered. It’s no surprise that Paul wants to become an artist, much to the dismay of his parents, Esther (Anne Hathaway), a PTA president, and Irving (Jeremy Strong), a contractor with a short fuse. Paul’s only ally is his grandfather, Aaron (a magnificent Anthony Hopkins), the family patriarch.

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Drawing from his own life, director James Gray unfurls perspectives on coming-of-age, prejudice, and moral responsibility in his latest film, “Armageddon Time.”

Paul’s connection to his grandfather functions as a kind of sanctuary. The only other person he can really open up to is Johnny (a terrific Jaylin Webb), a fellow rebel and one of his few Black classmates. Johnny lives with his ailing grandmother and dreams of becoming an astronaut. When Paul finds out that Johnny can’t afford to pay for a school field trip to the Guggenheim museum, he filches the money for his buddy. Paul tells Johnny that his family is “super rich,” but in fact they are solidly middle-class. Paul wants Johnny to know he’s there for him, but his exaggeration only serves to point up the divide between them.

If “Armageddon Time” simply recounted Paul’s coming-of-age, complete with a hefty serving of family spats, it wouldn’t have the resonance it often exhibits at its best. The friendship between Paul and Johnny, even more than Paul’s relationship with his grandfather, is the film’s emotional core.

Gray (“Little Odessa,” “The Immigrant”) is scrupulously honest about the lineaments of that friendship. When Paul rhapsodizes about becoming an artist, his parents may fear for his future, but at least, among other white boys, his ambition has some precedent. Johnny’s longing in that era to become an astronaut seems much more of a pipe dream. In his more settled moments, he knows the game is rigged against him.

Focus Features/AP
Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong play middle-class parents who contend with antisemitism and their own prejudices in "Armageddon Time."

The Graff family has had to contend with antisemitism, but Gray doesn’t back off from depicting their own prejudices. Paul’s parents push him into a fancy private school in part because it’s all-white. They consider Johnny a bad influence. Even Aaron, no racist, wants Paul to attend the school so ostensibly he can have a better life. The most heartbreaking scene in the movie comes when Johnny walks up to Paul’s fenced-in private school playground and, attempting casual conversation with him, is lightly rebuffed. Paul doesn’t want his newfound classmates to know he and Johnny are good friends.    

Later, when Paul and Johnny are caught in a petty crime, the difference in their treatment in juvenile detention is striking. Paul’s father lays it out for the boy: “Life is unfair,” he says. “You are elite.”

Gray perhaps makes too much of the politics of the era as a harbinger of troubling times to come. The Graffs sneer at Ronald Reagan’s imminent presidential victory and, in a scene drawn from Gray’s own recollection, we are treated to not one but two speeches by Trumps at the private school – by Fred (John Diehl), Donald’s father, a major benefactor, and Maryanne, a sister (Jessica Chastain, in a cameo), a federal prosecutor who lectures the privileged white students on the virtues of self-reliance and hard work.

But what stays with you is the final bit of advice Aaron gives Paul. Recounting his own family’s flight from the pogroms and the Holocaust, he says, “Remember your past.” About the unfortunate incident between the two boys in the schoolyard, he adds, “Next time, speak up.” “Armageddon Time” is ultimately about being responsible for one’s moral choices.

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “Armageddon Time” is rated R for language and some drug use involving minors. 

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