Movies about childhood are usually as colorful as the puffballs in Amarcord, as catchy as the songs in Almost Famous and as sentimental as the bedtime stories in Boyhood. In the new film from James Gray, however, childhood is not the vibe you may be expecting. Almost alone among makers of personal movies, a genre frequently characterized by nostalgia and bliss, Gray uses intimate performances and fine writing to turn a dramatized version of his past into a heartbreaking rendition of despair. Armageddon Time’s protagonist is a kid who wants to find himself and hopes the price of freedom doesn’t come too high. Gray has essentially laid hands on his own education, and has in effect, made his life yours and your life his for the entire two hour runtime of this film.
Like Terrence Davies, who’s been an influence, Gray has a gift for making his home feel like your own. With innate awareness, he’s made Armageddon Time as unique as it is universal, casting a sympathetic eye on the foibles of youth and the moments that shape us. From the first scene, it’s clear Gray is not a fan of his 11-year-old self. His stand-in for the real person, Paul (Banks Repeta), might be the most obnoxious middle schooler since Rachel McAdams was bullying people in Mean Girls. One night at dinner, he rejects the meal prepared by his mother (Anne Hathaway) and orders takeout from a local restaurant. His dad, Irving (Jeremy Strong), who wears a gray suit and sounds like Ray Romano, tries but usually fails to keep him in check. His teachers don’t know what to do with him either, as they send him to the principal’s office everyday for drawing pictures of animals or smoking pot with classmates.
The only person he’ll listen to is his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), an english transplant whose mother escaped anti-Semetic persecution decades earlier in Ukraine. When the two sit in a park lined with autumn leaves and metal structures from the 1964 World’s Fair, Aaron delivers a speech on what it means to be a good person and stand up for others, one that sticks to Paul (and the audience) like a political bumper sticker. From then on, we see Paul make an effort to stand up for his black friend (Jaylin Webb) and distance himself from the students who cheer on Marianne Trump (a scene-stealing Jessica Chastian) when she talks about white ambition. Gray has gotten into politics before, most prominently in Little Odessa, but he pushes the envelope here with the Reagan election playing in the background on television screens. While news anchors speak of a “shining city on a hill,” Paul finds himself in a dark corner on a ledge.
It’s tempting to compare Armageddon Time to other films about childhood, as Paul is thrust into a world of change. But there’s something rather grave about this depiction, which isn’t trying to be a rosy portrait of youth but to create an emotionally authentic representation of one man’s experience. Hardened realism takes precedence in this naturalistic and observational film.
Gray threads moments of magical, dreamlike surrealism when Paul finds himself in the presence of art, but mainly this is one of those dramas that takes everything as seriously as a Jewish father. At points, Armageddon Time (the name of a Clash song that plays over the credits) feels a bit long, but it’s a pleasure to simply be in the company of these characters and to see as much as they do. In the end, you feel as if you’ve grown up alongside them, and gone through all the troubles Gray went through as a child. There’s a lot of bumps along the way, but that’s what makes the journey so special.
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