For whatever reason, 2022 seems to be the year in which celebrated auteurs have decided to collectively look back at their childhoods to mine their youth for dramatic themes and commentary on modern society.
Whether it be the isolation of the COVID pandemic or these veteran filmmakers actualizing their own autobiographical works, it seems moviegoers will have no shortage of self-indulgent drama this holiday season with Netflix putting their weight behind Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Bardo, and Steven Spielberg pushing towards another best picture bid with The Fabelmans.
The first of these major films to play upon this narrative comes from writer/director James Gray, whose film inspired by his youth growing up in 1980s Queens is a captivating yet troubling portrait of an America that feels so far away yet so close.
Armageddon Time follows a young Jewish-American boy who befriends an African American classmate after both are picked on by an overbearing teacher and follows him as he struggles to adapt to familial expectations and a world filled with prejudice.
While not overly political in nature, Gray’s film certainly takes more advantage of opportunities to villainize one side of the current political spectrum and yet at the same time is a wonderfully touching time capsule of the intimate family drama that Hollywood isn’t really interested in making these days.
The core of what makes Armageddon Time a movie worth watching are the fantastic ensemble performances, most notably from the two young leads Banks Repeta as Paul and Jaylin Webb as Johnny.
Because so much of the film leans heavily on Paul’s perspective, Armageddon Time required Gray to find a young performer capable of showing naivety but also a relentless charm amid the tomfoolery of innocent childhood. As Paul, Repeta anchors the film with a steady presence that allows the characters around him to be much more demonstrative, especially his parents played by Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway who give compelling performances while not being over-the-top as stereotypical Jewish-American parents.
While Gray isn’t really interested in the emotional connection between Paul and his parents, both Strong and Hathaway give layered, nuanced turns in limited screen time more separately than in tandem as Armageddon Time primarily operates in one-on-one dialogue scenes.
The best performance in the entire film and the best chemistry Repeta is able to create with another character comes in Paul’s relationship with his maternal grandfather, Aaron, played by Oscar winner Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Hopkins’ Aaron is the sort of jovial, heartwarming best friend figure that Paul needs and while Hopkins isn’t necessarily the best choice to round out this family dynamic, on an individual level in scenes with Repeta, Hopkins truly makes Gray’s emotional drama come alive with poise and gravitas that the film does not otherwise have.
It’s perhaps the most poignant and beautiful supporting performance so far this year and is worth the price of admission alone especially for a pair of scenes between grandfather and grandson that do little to further the film’s narrative but sets the emotional core of the entire feature.
Armageddon Time has issues relating to a “white savior” narrative or more broadly the racial commentary that Gray doesn’t completely understand that he’s making, but despite this, Webb steals scenes with ease as Johnny despite the problematic ways in which the character is written and underdeveloped. It’s unclear if Gray truly considers Johnny’s financial and societal plight worthy of examination or simple pity at all, which holds the overall film back.
There’s a world in which Armageddon Time dials back the political commentary in deference to the social and would probably make a more well-rounded film. This is especially true as it relates to the inclusion of members of the extended Trump family into the narrative for little reason, although Jessica Chastain is exceptional in a small cameo as Maryanne Trump.
Armageddon Time is certainly an aspirational awards contender that doesn’t fully come together cohesively as a narrative but taken in small scene by scene moments would be worthy of an at-home viewing experience later this fall.