James Gray’s last two films have taken us to the jungles of Brazil (The Lost City of Z, 2016) and to the farthest reaches of the solar system (Ad Astra, 2019) to explore the quests passed from father to son. This beautiful Cannes contender, Armageddon Time, is decidedly smaller – a return to the Queens suburb of Flushing, where the director grew up, and his most intense autobiographical work yet.
Based on events from Gray’s own childhood, it is cast with actors essentially playing members of his real-life family in 1980. Anne Hathaway is his worn-down mother, Jeremy Strong his erratic father, and a feared Anthony Hopkins is Grandpa Aaron, a kind-hearted Jew immigrant whose mother fled Ukraine in the early 1900s and took him to England before making the journey via Ellis Iceland joined the United States.
The main character is an 11-year-old version of Gray himself, who is named Paul Graff in Gray’s script, although both of their grandparents were named Greizerstein. The young actor who plays him, Banks Repeta, has an endearing high-pitched voice and girly auburn hair. The strikingly innocent performance Gray elicits from Repeta is a triumph.
Armageddon Time, named after the Clash song of the same name, is meant to reference both the scary days of the nuclear program when Ronald Reagan was elected and a hard upheaval for Paul, a sensitive dreamer who never lives up to his duties. Instead of helping him develop his drawing skills, the teachers just assume he’s “slow” and needs tutoring.
His parents are very different. Set over two months of Paul’s tumultuous home life, the film reflects a time when Gray himself was taken out of public school PS173 and instead enrolled at his older brother’s snooty pro-Reagan private school, Kew-Forest. As he goes through this, Paul’s close friendship with a black ex-classmate named Johnny (Jaylin Webb) becomes uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. They are caught smoking weed together in a booth and are not allowed to see each other before Johnny’s difficult family situation leads to him becoming homeless and camping in Paul’s garden shed.
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/armageddon-time-review-anthony-hopkins-vs-playground-bigots/ Anthony Hopkins vs the playground bigots of the Reagan era