Directed by: James Gray
Distributed by: Focus Features
Written by Taylor Baker
James Gray has made a career out of telling stories that put the humanity of characters first and foremost. In “Armageddon Time” Gray turns to his childhood in Queens during the late ’70s and early ’80s to reflect on the public school system, race, class, and generational trauma. Gray’s stand-in is Paul Graff, played by Banks Repeta, he’s a 6th grader who just wants to make his class laugh. Paul quickly strikes up a friendship with Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb) a black student that’s being held back a year, that also has a penchant for entertaining his class. The two take turns sticking up for each other to their miserable and seemingly racist teacher Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk).
While Paul’s day-to-day experience occurs in the foreground propelling the film, the muffled backdrop is the historical trauma that Paul’s family endured. Communicated in one scene over dinner while discussing ornate cups that his great aunt brought back from post-war Europe, “read the names on the bottoms, you can tell they were stolen from Jews” she instructs at one point and indeed we see the etched names of the previous owners as the cup tilts and glints in the light. The film also insinuates a pattern of abuse from Paul’s father who beats Paul with a belt after he’s caught at school smoking weed by his teacher. Though it is focused on abuse, violence, and unfair treatment it rarely depicts or contains anything substantial and comprehensive, only when the film wanders in and out of conversations about the Holocaust with Paul’s grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) who buoys the film with gravitas and quiet assurance does their lurk something of consequence.
“Armageddon Time” superficially offers a mea culpa at the end, narrated by Jeremy Strong’s Irving Graff who plays Paul’s father. After leaving Johnny at a police station to take the fall for a crime the two boys committed together Irving urges Paul to not look back and utilize the advantage he’s been given that Johnny doesn’t have. When considering the scope of what Gray chooses to turn his camera on, this mea culpa and the general substance of the narrative feel flimsy. In a film asking for a lot of goodwill and compassion, it’s a bit flummoxing to end on a point being made about using every advantage you have and leaving your friends alone in the dark to take the fall. While I can sympathize with much of the bones of the narrative and personal experience of Gray, I can’t quite leap over this hurdle, but maybe that’s exactly the point he’s trying to make.
“Armageddon Time” Trailer