ARMAGEDDON TIME: 3 ½ STARS. “unsentimental and uncomfortable.”
Another semi-autobiographical movie adds itself to the ever-growing list of films about filmmakers. Recently movies like “Belfast” and “The Fablemans,” lovingly detailed the young lives of Kenneth Branagh and Steven Spielberg. Now, “Armageddon Time,” starring Anne Hathaway, Anthony Hopkins and Jeremy Strong, and now playing in theatres, treads similar ground, as an edgy Reagan-era period piece about director James Grey’s early life.
Set in Queens, New York, the story takes place over two months in the run-up to Reagan’s election in 1980. Red-headed sixth-grader Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), is an artistically inclined kid, who lives with his second-generation Jewish American parents, Ester and Irving (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong). His older brother Ted (Ryan Sell), now studying at private school, is an over-achiever, whose example has set the bar very high for the head-in-the-clouds Paul.
Only his doting grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) seems to understand him, and support his artistic ambitions. “You can be an artist if you want to be,” Aaron says. “Nothing’s going to stop you.”
At school his stuffy teacher Mr. Turkletaub (Andrew Polk) doesn’t appreciate a caricature Paul draws of him and punishes him, along with African-American classmate Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), a more worldly youngster, who dreams of being an astronaut. The two dreamers hit it off, forming a friendship that teaches Paul difficult lessons about the nature of friendship and family.
“Armageddon Time” draws its name from a Ronald Reagan news interview, seen in the film, where the former “Bedtime for Bonzo” star warned that, unless he is elected to straighten the world out, “We might be the generation that sees Armageddon.”
On a more direct level, the titular Armageddon refers to the battle Paul wages between his good intentions and evil deeds. The impulsive sixth-grader is torn between Ester and Irving’s desire for him to excel at anything, it seems, except for the thing he loves most, his grandfather’s advice to always be a mensch and his friendship with Johnny, and it pushes him to act out, without regard for the consequences.
It is in that push-and-pull that Paul makes the mistakes that will shape the film’s study of race and class, and inform his relationships and, presumably, his future.
The melancholy movie finds its drama within that push-and-pull. At the start Paul and Johnny are goofy troublemakers, bonded by a shared enjoyment of walking their own path, but as their stories become intertwined, their innocence is soon stripped away as the disparity of their life situations is highlighted. Both young actors bring a palpable sense of confusion, disappointment and eventually resignation, to their roles. It is remarkable work from each, performances that shine a harsh light on adolescence, rather than the usual coming-of-age wistful glimmer.
“Armageddon Time” features predictably interesting work from the entire cast, who come together in an ensemble that often feels like a real, dysfunctional family. There is also a subtle showstopper of a scene between Hopkins and Repeta that packs an emotional punch by what it doesn’t say, rather than what it does, but director Grey’s biggest achievement may be the uncompromising, unsentimental and uncomfortable approach to his own coming-of-age story.