It’s natural for filmmakers to want to revisit their pasts through their chosen medium of artistic expression. They create stories that might reflect other people’s experiences or adapt someone else’s memories or fiction, and it’s impossible for them not to be influenced at least somewhat by what they’ve been through in their lives. It’s particularly interesting when a filmmaker for the first time takes on a project that is in some way autobiographical, perhaps fictionalized for dramatic or cinematic effect but heavily inspired by formative moments in their childhood, as James Gray does in Armageddon Time.
Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is an intelligent child who doesn’t apply himself very much in school, choosing instead to amuse his classmates and befriend Johnny (Jaylin Webb), who is always blamed for causing trouble even if he’s not actually responsible for it. At home, he enjoys a warm relationship with his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), while struggling to connect with his hardline father Irving (Jeremy Strong) and often driving his mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) crazy by, among other things, ordering dumplings for dinner rather than appreciating the lavish meal she has cooked for the family.
While the award-winning and well-known actors Hathaway and Strong receive top billing, this is really a showcase for Repeta, whose Paul dominates the majority of the film and whose perspective is conveyed to the audience. His face encompasses much of the screen in multiple scenes, and it’s possible to glean great meaning from his alternately fascinated and dejected expressions. His chosen hobby – drawing – is indicative of a bigger dream to one day pursue it as a career, something his parents doubt, and that interest helps to bring him closer to Johnny, who is obsessed with NASA and suggests that they should head together to Florida for a more fulfilling life.
Repeta and Webb are both impressive talents who more than hold their own opposite the older and more experienced cast members. The film, which dives deep into Gray’s upbringing, spends most of its time with the two of them, honing in on the pure and simple friendship that they have which the adult teachers and relatives in their lives can’t understand. While it does feel sincere and strong, it’s still tested by a push by Paul’s parents for him to switch to his brother’s private school, a place where Paul will be forced to contend with strict discipline and finally start taking his future seriously, while Johnny will be left to likely repeat the sixth grade a second time with his teacher intent on singling him out and assuring that he doesn’t succeed.
When he’s not being affected by his education, Paul’s youthful experiences take place mostly at home. Hopkins is endearing as the gentle grandfather who encourages his interests instead of pushing him to straighten out, and he and Repeta share compelling scenes together. Hathaway and Strong embody their characters with a true sense of the film’s era, the early 1980s, traditional in their viewpoints and well aware of their proximity to the Holocaust that hasn’t directly affected their family, which left Czechoslovakia for England before the Nazis came, but whose devastation of Europe’s Jews has made them paranoid about the stability of their safe and tranquil existence in America.
At a press conference following a New York Film Festival screening of the film, Gray likened Armageddon Time to a ghost story, recalling memories that can’t be confirmed as entirely authentic but which left a searing and lingering impression on him. He and the cast also highlighted that the characters are flawed, subject to their own hurdles but also capable of expressing their own prejudices towards other. In that portrait of imperfection, Armageddon Time succeeds, probing memory in search of something that isn’t always clear and doesn’t necessarily get found.
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Following its screenings in the Main Slate at the New York Film Festival, Armageddon Time will be released theatrically on October 28th.