James Gray’s new film “Armageddon Time” is a somber and melancholic coming-of-age drama which feels rather uneven and superficial despite some good moments to be appreciated. Mainly revolving around a young boy of one stable middle-class Jewish family in New York City during 1980, the movie closely observes how its young hero comes to open his eyes more to the harsh reality surrounding him, but it only seems to scratch the surface at times as mostly stuck inside its genre conventions, and there are also some glaringly distracting moments which do not mesh well with the rest of the film.
During the opening part of the movie, we get to know how things have been not so good for its young hero. Although he has considerable artistic potential, Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is not regarded that well by his parents Irving (Jeremy Strong) and Esther (Ann Hathaway) just because he is not focusing on study. At least, his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) does not hesitate to encourage Paul’s growing artistic aspiration, and Paul is always delighted whenever Aaron comes to see him.
Unlike his older brother who studies at a prestigious private school, Paul has been attending a local public school just because his parents cannot afford to send him to that private school, and he does not expect much as he begins the sixth year, but then he meets Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), an older African American boy placed in Paul’s class because he is held back by a year. Right from their first day in the class, they become quite friendly to each other because both of them hate their class teacher, and Paul soon finds himself spending a lot of time along with Johnny.
However, their jolly time does not last long mainly because Johnny frequently clashes with the class teacher while also inadvertently getting his friend into big troubles. At one point, they get themselves caught for smoking marijuana in a school bathroom, and Paul’s parents are certainly furious when they learn of what their son did.
In the end, Paul’s parents decide to send Paul to that private school, and Paul is certainly devastated, but there is nothing he can do – especially when he realizes that his grandfather wholly supports his parents’ decision. On his first day on that private school, he cannot help but feel awkward as sensing how much it is different from his previous school, and he also feels quite uncomfortable when his new schoolmates do not hesitate to show their prejudices against colored people.
As his older brother advised to him in advance, it seems all Paul has to do is just keeping himself low and quiet, but he becomes more aware of not only how privileged his world is – and how his world is unfair to those less privileged people like Johnny. Not long after Paul is transferred, Johnny eventually drops out, and we clearly see troubles on the horizon when Paul later gets himself involved with Johnny more than expected.
Naturally, Paul asks for some advice from his grandfather, and there is a quiet but poignant moment as Aaron gives Paul what may be his last advice to his grandson. Although Paul does not say a lot about his recent troubles, Aaron clearly sees through his grandson as usual, and he does not pull any punch at all while telling his grandson about why he should stand up against prejudice and injustice.
Around the last act, the movie becomes a bit tense as Paul tries something risky along with his friend, and that is when the movie begins to stumble a lot. Mostly sticking with Paul’s viewpoint, the movie does not delve much into whatever Johnny feels and thinks, and it does not even seem to try to understand his position except a very brief flashback scene showing his private life. Despite young performer Jaylin Webb’s strong presence, Johnny remains to be more or less than a mere plot device to be exploited for Paul’s gradual maturation along the story, and that is the main reason why his last scene with Paul lacks necessary dramatic impact to linger on our mind.
In addition, Gray’s screenplay, which is inspired by his own childhood memories, is curiously distant to several other crucial figures in Paul’s life. While Paul’s mother is a merely neurotic housewife who is not so good at cooking, Paul’s father frequently swings back and forth between being abusive and thoughtful, and Paul’s older brother usually remains in the background just like several other family members besides Aaron. We never really get to know and understand any of them, and the movie ultimately wastes the diligent efforts of Ann Hathaway and Jeremy Strong, who often struggle with the uneven depiction of their respective roles.
Anyway, the movie is carried well by the earnest performance from young performer Banks Repeta. He is wonderful especially during his several key scenes with Anthony Hopkins, and Hopkins subtly holds the ground for Repeta while never overshadowing him at all. In their cameo appearance, John Diehl and Jessica Chastain are effective as certain two real-life figures associated with not only Paul’s private school but also that orange-faced scumbag, and you can easily see how the movie attempts to connect its period background with our time.
In conclusion, “Armageddon Time” is one or two steps down from Gray’s better works such as “The Immigrant” (2013) and “The Lost City of Z” (2016). It is not a total waste of time thanks to several good performances and its authentic period mood and details, but I still think it could go deeper into its story and characters, and I let you decide whether you will check it out or not.