As far as nostalgia-tinted, autobiographical coming-of-age films go, Armageddon Time is bleak, bordering on nihilistic. It’s 1980 in Brooklyn, and the eleven-year-old son in a middle-class Jewish family is coming to terms with the crushing forces of capitalism, class, and discrimination. I prefer my young adult films when they don’t try to be message films, and Armageddon Time goes a bit too far with the finger-wagging to be a movie I can ever see myself wanting to watch again. But this James Gray joint is well-constructed and -acted, with just enough authentic emotional texture and subtlety to be worth watching.
Paul (Banks Repeta) is a daydreamer who loves drawing but can never stay focused in class. He hits it off with Johnny (Jaylin Webb). Both are troublemakers, but for different reasons: Paul is called different variations of “space cadet,” which probably means he has ADHD before that was commonly diagnosed. Johnny, meanwhile, is Black, poor, and has little support at home.
Johnny is a huge writing blunder. He hits basically every cliche of a poor Black kid in media, introducing some worldliness to Paul’s doe-eyed view of the world. We get an early fun scene of Paul and Johnny playing hooky, imagining being astronauts. (Entirely predictable: Johnny mentioning “Hey, have you heard of this thing called rap music? Kurtis Blow? Sugar Hill Gang?”) But he quickly becomes a vessel for the film’s depiction of broken social structures rather than a proper character. I actually laughed out loud at the corniness of the scene where Paul learns that Johnny doesn’t have shoes so his feet are muddy and cut up, a detail that’s abandoned a scene later. By the third act, Johnny becomes a mechanism for Paul to learn a Very Special Episode message about how racism is bad, as are the rich white people who enable it.
What works much better is Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Paul’s grandfather. He plays a slight variation of the stereotypical grown-up role model in these types of movies, but he lends a gravity and world-weariness to the film that improves the film whenever he’s on screen. He also has some feisty energy to him — there’s a particular monologue he gives to Paul late in the film that Hopkins really nails.
The best supporting performance of all, though, belongs to Jeremy Strong as Paul’s father. It’s a wounded, compelling performance that makes the various contradictions and edges of the character still blend to a sympathetic whole.
There’s a lot of content in the film that is overtly political. Gray always hedges just a bit to prevent the movie from going too didactic, but this sometimes results in an unsatisfying middle ground. For example, Paul’s mother (Anne Hathaway) decides to run for the school board, and it’s implied that Paul’s struggles could be a mark against her candidacy. But the film never digs into this: why she wants to run, or how it impacts her relationship with Paul, etc. It’s just tossed out there and left unexplored. There’s also a glaring Trump reference that will age like soft cheese — not that Fred Trump doesn’t deserve infinite scorn, but when he’s the only historical figure in the story and this was obviously written while 45 was in office, it’s real hokey.
The final scene of the film is its worst, because it tips the film too far towards back-patting the audience in its messaging. “We know better, us liberals in 2022!” it argues, which is a real indulgent way to end a film that is otherwise more observational and cynical in considering broken institutions.
What saves the film from unwatchability are the glimmers of personality as well as the excellent professional production values. Especially early in the film, there are a lot of bits with great specificity and charm. In one fun scene, Paul orders Chinese food in defiance of his parents, making them furious. This leads to the funniest moment of the film, a quick cut to a couple hours in the future when his mom calmly asks if anyone wants the Chinese leftovers.
The cinematography by Darius Khondji also deserves shout-out: This is a terrific looking film. It’s not only an attractive film but thoughtful about how it looks; the cinematography enhances the themes of the film. The colors perfectly straddle sepia warmth and muddy browns, emphasizing the murky transition from innocent childhood to depressing adolescence.
Alas, it’s not enough. It’s always nice to watch a well-made coming-of-that engages with complex themes, but Armageddon Time fails to resonate beyond some of its craftsmanship. It has much less personality than plenty of other, more scraggly young adult films this year. For example, the similarly bleak Funny Pages is also about an aspiring middle-class artist who struggles in school, but so tense and scuzzy and hyper-specific that I’m sure I’ll be thinking about it more in a year’s time than I will anything in the classier Armageddon Time.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film