Armageddon time, the newest film directed by James Gray is described in its official synopsis as “a deeply personal story on the strength of family, the complexity of friendship and the generational pursuit of the American dream”. Even though all those elements mentioned above are true to the film I would say the most important part of is slipping out.Armageddon time is a film about growing up that centers in 6th grader Paul Graff played by Banks Repeta.
The film is very different from many other coming-of-age films we have seen the last years. It doesn’t have that classic nostalgia for the 80’s depicted so commonly nowadays. It is a film that sometimes hurts, but also makes you laugh. It feels like watching a long personal memory put into images. Gray is not afraid to include ugly truths about his family and himself in the autobiographical story. The feature is honest, which helps the characters feel as real people. The director stated “I love the people in this story. They are all ghosts now”. His intention of portraying his family is successful and even with all the lights and shadows of the characters, we can tell that the love of Gray for them is deep.
When leaving the theater, it was hard to me to summarize the film. There are many different things happening at the same time, many characters and themes, however a word came to my mind: “heartwarming”. There is something about Armageddon Time that made me feel that way and I would say it is rooted in the human relationships depicted on it. Human relationships that are complex, full of layers and fragile.
The feature explores the new friendship between Paul and a classmate named Johnny (Jaylin Webb) who is repeating 6th grade and is constantly mistreated by their teacher. Johnny is black, which makes others treat him different. Paul notices this but does not really elaborate about it until time passes. We can tell how he feels uncomfortable sometimes, especially when he addresses this to his grandpa. This aspect of the film appears to be more of a reflection from the director as an adult. The friendship between these two kids is based on liking similar things and being bad at school. They are very alike and yet seen very different by others. The actors, Repeta and Webb have chemistry on screen, this makes their friendship look genuine. The performances are one of the strengths of the film.
It is not a surprise to see an excellent performance from Anne Hathaway. She is great as Paul’s mother Esther, full of a complex inner life that is beautiful to see, especially when things get harder in the story. She can be a severe mother, but also a caring one. The relationship she has with her father, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) mirrors the one between him and Paul.
Hopkins is lovely as grandpa Aaron. Personally, to me it is hard not to think of the actor in The silence of the Lambs or in recent series Westworld. Even though I have seen him perform in many features I felt like I never saw his wise grandpa side before. Aaron guides his grandson Paul through life being understanding and caring. He sees him as an equal with enough intelligence to understand and be a better person every day. Grandpa Aaron is the adult every kid needs, because growing up is hard.
Gray referred to the title of the film coming from a cover song from The Clash, which is present in the feature. Also related to the 80’s as an era when the nuclear war was a continuing menace and how that relates to the feeling of growing up. In Paul’s life, growing up is feeling like being on the edge of nuclear war. Something as small as changing schools feels like a bomb exploding for him. Watching Repeta as Paul is refreshing. During his character’s journey he needs to face loss continuously. His acting feels so genuine that one can actually travel that journey with him and feel moved by his experiences. I wished to see even more of him or to feel in some way that the film was completely about his journey. While trying to make a political statement about the times and the idea of the “American dream”, his story gets lost sometimes. The film tries to have a chorus kind of storytelling, where character development becomes important to each one of them, however the protagonist is Paul. Even though the whole cast is amazing, I would rather to stay more time with him or at least to feel that the point of view of the film is coming from him. The point of view feels from the outside of the story, which made me take some distance at times.
I also wished to have a little more of Johnny. To me watching both kids was enjoyable and I felt that the character needed a little more development to make a successful statement about racial injustice. We just see Johnny with his Grandma once. We know enough things about him to care , but the injustice as a theme stays just as an anecdote. What happens with him hurts, but the film has so many other things going on that I think it doesn’t hurt enough. Johnny functions as a device to know about Paul.
All in all, Armageddon time is an enjoyable film that highlights the complexity of growing up and human relationships. As a portrait of a time it is beautiful to watch, with cinematography and production design of the highest quality which helps to be immersed in the 80’s for a while. It is a film that you can tell was made from the heart.