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Good films about guilt are more common than you may think. It is a universal emotion, one that every non-psychopath experiences on a regular, if not daily, basis. Insults, slights, betrayals, and disappointments arrive with an inevitable pang of guilt, to say nothing of every forgotten birthday, anniversary, or other occasion. This can be the stuff of great drama, to the point where every film genre, particularly horror, has explored the nuances of guilt. What makes Armageddon Time, the new autobiographical film from James Gray, so remarkable is how he does not let himself off the hook. It is a tough needle to thread, one that could invite facile takeaways, yet Gray is steadfast in his willingness to grapple with the limits of “lessons” in coming-of-age stories.
Gray grew up in Queens, New York, and his film follows a few months in 1980, at the start of sixth grade but before Ronald Reagan won the Presidential election. His alter-ego is Paul (Banks Repeta), a smart kid who goofs off in class and daydreams about becoming an artist. Through mutual disdain of his teacher, Paul forms a fast friendship with the only Black kid in his class, Johnny (Jaylin Webb). Told almost exclusively from Paul’s perspective, his friendship fuels a greater sense of confusion when his parents (played by Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway) talk about Black people with a mix of annoyance and disdain. Still, Paul mostly loves his loud, messy, and complicated family. But his affection is more acute for his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins), a Jew who escaped the concentration camps by fleeing to the United Kingdom. All these people, including Johnny, impart lessons on Paul, sometimes unintentionally, and the tension is whether this young man—who can be rebellious and naive—will get it.
The Jewish American experience, particularly for someone from Gray’s generation, is an important undercurrent through the film. Through Paul’s father, there is a sense of obligation (or survivor’s guilt) that looms over their big scenes together. Now that the family has reached the middle class they must succeed because others from their community were not so lucky. That feeling is pathological for Paul’s father, who had familial obligation drilled into his head so deeply that he flies into a rage whenever his children violate it, whereas his grandfather has a lighter touch, using Paul’s daily life as an opportunity to think about his own past (as the son of a Romanian Jew and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, that subtext resonated with me).
But the film complicates generational obligations through racism and the American dream at its most cutthroat. There is a pointed, uncomfortable scene where Paul meets Fred Trump (John Diehl), an oily figure whose “I’ve got mine” philosophy permeates over the private school where Paul ultimately re-enrolls. How can this boy reconcile systemic inequities with a desire to do the right thing? Armageddon Time does not wrestle with this question, exactly, and instead presents realistic situations where the path of least resistance means the only real answer is that there is no answer.
That thorny ambivalence offers little solace to Johnny, a cipher of a character who lacks agency due to Paul’s limited point of view. As a sensitive filmmaker, Gray is able to see how Paul disappointed and failed Johnny, which is not to say the film is apologia to him. Instead, it is about failure and imperfection, a subtle critique of the impulse from White artists to “other” their Black characters. Such a distinction runs into a familiar “depiction is not endorsement” problem, and Gray overcomes it with his portrayal of Johnny. Sometimes he appears and disappears from the frame like a ghost, subtly looming over Paul, an acknowledgment that he could have been less naive and scared (in the film’s lone misstep, it depicts Johnny interacting with his grandfather, a deviation from Paul’s point of view that undermines the film’s greater purpose). Webb’s performance is pitch-perfect, a transition from youthful exuberance being lost to bitter cynicism, and if he serves as the film’s moral center, Gray has wherewithal to acknowledge that role also denies him humanity he always deserved and rarely received.
What elevates the film beyond mere self-flagellation is Gray’s absorbing sense of detail. Like many other coming-of-age films, he recognizes that certain conversations and cultural ephemera are what give Armageddon Time a specific sense of place. Aside from the aforementioned Trumps, Gray includes little autobiographical details, like his father mock-dancing to a punk song or Johnny’s blossoming obsession with hip-hop. Still, the film is not a mere time capsule or a catalog of Gray’s youthful obsessions. It’s also an exploration of his family’s eccentricity, right down to the dynamics between his parents and his teacher’s strategies toward discipline. Hathaway, Strong, and Hopkins create a flawed sense of humanity, despite all being gentiles, and yet Strong’s forceful, at times tortured, performance is where Gray finds the most resonance. One speech of his delivered late in the film accomplishes a lot through carefully chosen words—and what his character also chooses to omit.
Starting with references to the Trumps and ending with Reagan’s ascendancy to the White House, there is a steady political subtext to Armageddon Time. Gray is not a propagandist, and suggests figures like this—who subjugated vulnerable Americans as a matter of policy—infected everyday life in ways such men could never fully fathom. Paul learns how to navigate through this period the easy way, while Johnny does not have the resources or background for such success (Gray acknowledges his privilege and complicit nature to this system). Now that it’s been nearly half a century since this period and Gray advanced into middle age, he looks back with guilt, fondness, and a palpable sense of rage. His film, an attempt to muck his way through these conflicting emotions, is always honest, inherently flawed, and, most importantly, sometimes brilliant.
Armageddon Time opens in area theaters on Nov. 4.