For his 8th feature film, director James Grey, doing double duty as writer and director, leaves outer space (Ad Astra) and Brooklyn (Little Odessa; Two Lovers) for Queens, where he centers his story on family, friendship, Judaism and race. Grey less successfully explores the costs of assimilation and the loss of any foundation besides money and success. It’s loosely based on his childhood growing up as a second-generation American (of Russian descent) at the dawn of the Reagan era in late 1980.
His stand-in is Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a sheltered, creative 6th grader with a stable middle-class home. Seemingly a loner at his public school, he befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb). School officials think Paul should be in remedial classes; in 2022 he might be labeled as being on the autism spectrum. Johnny is Black, fantasizes about being an astronaut, got left back a year, and is almost immediately discriminated against by their teacher, who labels Johnny “an animal.” A sweet kid, he’s barely being looked after by his ailing grandmother.
Repeta has the toughest role in the movie as the privileged protagonist who’s only sort of tethered to the real world but around whom all the action flows. He does a great job with a tricky character, but the standout of the film is Webb. Johnny is more of a stereotype than a lived-in character, but Webb infuses the role with heart and Johnny is the only one who earned my empathy.
Paul’s father Irving (Jeremy Strong) is a repairman, a smart boxed-in by class attitudes about blue-collar work. Irving is benign except when he flies into truly terrifying rages that would get Children’s Services called today. Paul’s mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) is a schoolteacher and wants to run for the school board. Like many parents of that time, they’re hands-off, somewhat absent, and not really interested in what their son does or cares about unless he’s getting into trouble. They have big aspirations for Paul and his brother Teddy, and Irving especially has no use for Paul’s daydreams and artistic pursuits. There’s been a lot of criticism about the cast not being Jewish and while they’re completely believable, their parts, in particular Esther’s, are severely underwritten.
Paul is closest to his beloved maternal Grandpa Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), who, if not for Johnny, seems to be Paul’s best friend. He’s the only family member to be invested in what makes Paul happy and gifts Paul with a paint set. Perhaps sensing that Paul is also in need of some connection to being Jewish, Aaron shares with him for the first time the story of how his mother had to flee Ukraine. Paul is genuinely puzzled as to why his great-grandmother had needed to escape, which seems to confirm those possible concerns. It’s not clear why Aaron suddenly decides to tell Paul about the family’s history. There aren’t any mentions in the film of Jewish holidays, synagogue or Hebrew school. The Wales-born Hopkins is perhaps even more improbable as a Jewish refugee, but I would want him for my Zaida. He brings warmth and affection, both into Paul’s life and the movie.
That Paul is in a moral crisis comes into focus following the family’s decision to pull him out of his public school bubble after he and Johnny get into trouble for smoking pot in the bathroom. The adults are already preoccupied with the influx of “Black kids” coming in anyway. They’re also fueled by their desire to diminish their Jewishness, an obstacle in their minds that will impede Paul’s success (Aaron faced antisemitic university admissions, and decades earlier, Irving’s father had changed the family name to the more “neutral” Graff). They drop him into the private school Teddy attends and even without the appearance of Fred Trump and Maryanne Trump (John Diehl and Jessica Chastain, respectively), who really were part of the fabric at Grey’s school, it’s not hard to imagine the uniformed, all-white students cheering for Reagan as future members of the last White House’s administration. Paul hears them using racial epithets when Johnny comes to see him at school and thinks saying nothing and turning his back on his friend is the right thing to do.
The ending is ambiguous but leaves hope that Paul may heed his grandpa’s warning to “remember his past” and not let the “schmucks” dictate his life.
‘Armageddon Time’ is playing at select theaters in the area. Check listings for showtimes.