James Gray returns to Cannes Competition with his self-critical, autobiographical coming-of-age tale about white privilege in America

Armageddon Time

Source: Festival de Cannes

‘Armageddon Time’

Dir/scr: James Gray. US. 2022. 114 mins. 

James Gray’s cinema has often focused on themes of family and America, but his latest picture is particularly interested in how white privilege informs both subjects. The autobiographical drama Armageddon Time tells the story of a troubled Queens boy who discovers that, while his life is far from easy, he’s actually luckier than many — including a Black classmate who becomes his closest friend. Exceedingly thoughtful and self-critical rather than lazily nostalgic, this well-acted coming-of-age tale can sometimes be predictable and muddled, but is steeped in the filmmaker’s sorrow for not recognising the ways in which he and those he loved contributed to an inequitable society that shows no signs of becoming less stratified.

Armageddon Time is a mournful study of our collective failure to see our own prejudice.

Armageddon Time represents Gray’s first time in Cannes Competition since 2013’s The Immigrant, and it boasts an impressive ensemble, including Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong and Anthony Hopkins. The timely topics of the film could help spark commercial prospects, but even so this looks to be a solid arthouse player that may struggle for mainstream crossover. 

Set in the autumn of 1980, the picture stars Banks Repeta as Paul, about 10 years old, who has his head in the clouds. School doesn’t interest the boy, who wants to be an artist — a notion that displeases his weary working-class parents Esther (Hathaway) and Irving (Strong). But Paul finds a more receptive audience with his new friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb), who appears to be one of the only Black kids at his Flushing, Queens school, and encourages his rebellious side. 

Gray draws heavily from his childhood for this portrait of the Graff family, as the product of Jewish immigrants who fled Europe in the hopes of finding a better life in the US. His superbly understated cast infuses the home scenes — which are often accentuated by Paul’s endearingly doting grandfather Aaron (Hopkins) — with a lived-in naturalism, complete with old fights that remain resolved. We only get the broad strokes, but we sense that Paul enjoys defying and tormenting his long-suffering mother, while Irving can, without warning, unleash a temper on his son that quickly escalates into frightening physical violence. Armageddon Time deftly sketches a family trying to claw its way into the middle class, and who are judgemental of other groups — such as upwardly mobile Black neighbours in their community.

Repeta plays Paul as a wilful boy who resents his parents’ disdain for his creative aspirations, and the young actor resists making the character lovable, instead letting him be as difficult and moody as children often are. But there’s also a sweetness and sensitivity to Paul — a deep feeling that he doesn’t fit in — and Armageddon Time shows how his bond with Johnny offers a respite from school and home. At the same time, though, Gray illustrates the impact of racism seeping into every aspect of Johnny’s life, with Webb’s expressive eyes suggesting all the animosity he has endured — starting in the classroom, where a bigoted teacher has held him back a grade, calling him an “animal” at one point. 

Paul and Johnny’s friendship is destined to cause complications — especially when Esther disapproves of her son’s friend — and Gray isn’t always elegant in dramatising the largely invisible societal factors that prop up the Graffs, despite the antisemitism they face, and drag down someone like Johnny. In the final reels of the film, the plotting grows a little heavy-handed, although it is worth noting that the writer-director refuses to paint Paul and his family as innocent bystanders to the injustices that will arise. Whether it is the elitist prep school Paul eventually attends — which ends up having queasy parallels to modern-day American politics — or the Graffs’ insistence on casting themselves as victims, Armageddon Time is a mournful study of our collective failure to see our own prejudice. Gray indicts not just a family, but the viewer as well — we are all to blame.

Production companies: Mad River Pictures, Keep Your Head 

Worldwide distribution: Focus Features/Universal Pictures

Producers: Anthony Katagas, Marc Butan, Rodrigo Teixeira

Production design: Happy Massee

Editing: Scott Morris

Cinematography: Darius Khondji

Music: Christopher Spelman

Main cast: Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb, Tovah Feldshuh, John Diehl, Andrew Polk, Anthony Hopkins