“Armageddon Time”

The greatest asset of writer / director James Gray‘s “Armageddon Time” is its simplicity. Gray doesn’t need an elaborate narrative to tell his autobiographical coming-of-age story and instead captures it perfectly on a small scale. Taking place over a brief period of time in New York in the 1980s, the film has a deeply personal feel and conveys what it was like as a kid struggling with racism and privilege.

Jewish-American boy Paul (Banks Repeta) just started 6th grade, and he’d rather daydream of becoming an artist rather than pay attention in his boring classes. He befriends an African-American classmate named Johnny (Jaylin Webb), and the two become fast pals. When Paul’s acting out, bad grades, and bad behavior continues, his parents (Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway) think it could be a result of “the blacks” being sent to his public school. They decide to enroll their son in an elite private academy that’s predominantly attended by rich kids. It is there that he first sees the detrimental effects of prejudice and bigotry when his new classmates use racist language to refer to Johnny.  

The film is an examination of the boy’s struggle with his own privilege while his black friend faces inequality. Johnny is disadvantaged in school and society, which leads to confusion and guilt for Paul. He wrestles with the fact that this is the way the world works, but he doesn’t feel good about it. Paultalks to his grandpa Aaron (Anthony Hopkins, who delivers a manipulative “chestnut of wisdom” monologue that feels hokey and forced), about the struggles at school and his inaction. Aaron shares that he, too knows what it’s like to be the target of hatred after years of antisemitism. He encourages his grandson to stand up against prejudice whenever he sees it because although anti-Jewish sentiment is still around, he still has the privilege of being white. 

The film isn’t as heavy-handed as it sounds, although the overly calculated scenes are unnecessary to drive the point home. There’s a similar scene between Paul and his dad, but the advice comes from two men with a very different outlook on life. The confusion that the boy feels later turns to guilt and finally, acceptance after he steals a computer and is let off the hook because a policeman knows his father. It’s a practical life lesson about race, class, and the advantages of being born into a certain social status, and it’s one that will shape a young man’s formative years.

Based on his own childhood experiences, Gray writes the familiar. He doesn’t try to cram too much detail nor nostalgia into his screenplay, wisely choosing to keep things focused and uncomplicated. The story has authentic characters and actors who look and talk like kids being kids, which gives a refreshing honesty to the film.  

“Armageddon Time” is a politically-tinged coming-of-age story with themes that feel repetitive and muted. It’s Gray’s personal touch and the strong performances from the cast that make this worth watching.

By: Louisa Moore

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