At the heart of writer-director James Gray’s films, there’s usually a guy trying to be cool. His latest, Armageddon Time, does not buck that trend. The film centres on a pre-teen boy discovering the world and its ways, however unfair they may be. In this case, it also allows Gray to reveal how a person—or, more pointedly, he—comes to define a specific version of cool.
The star of Armageddon Time is young Paul (Banks Repeta), who shares more than a few biographical details with Gray (e.g. Queens, NYC upbringing, Jewish family and history, etc.). That feeling of autofiction permeates the film as we meet Paul’s family, the Graffs (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong as parents, with grandpa Anthony Hopkins). Theirs is a comfortable enough middle-class life, buttressed by a sense of the past—or, more bluntly: what was survived to make it. Paul’s awakening sense of self takes off from there, aided by his own artistic leanings (out of step in Reagan’s America of 1980), and via the presence of Johnny (Jaylin Webb), conspicuously the only Black kid around. While the film provides each of its big-name actors their moments (with Hopkins shining far above all), its crux is the relationship between these boys, and the world (or worlds) they inhabit. Around them, Gray has all the period details right—the soundtrack, clothes, and texture put us in his childhood version of New York (John Diehl as Fred Trump really drives this home). Yet Gray’s film is merely instructive, not profound, its moral heft covering for a drama that feels a tad too neat.
While I won’t come down too hard on the young actors, Repeta and Webb, in Armageddon Time, they don’t do much to animate the film’s flatter and familiar material. And anyway, it’s Gray’s fault that Johnny never quite becomes anything other than a device, a tool by which Paul can fine-tune his perspective. That we can surmise he grew up to become Gray is honest. It is also decidedly uncool.