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  • Reviewed at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

The autobiographical elements that run through James Gray’s New York-set dramas are brought together in Armageddon Time, his portrait of the artist as a young man. Though the film thematises the artistic bourgeoning of the protagonist, 11-year-old Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), the director doesn’t adopt an alter ego in order to indulge in nostalgic self-mythologising – like, for instance, Paolo Sorrentino in his pompous The Hand of God – but to situate himself within and reflect on the legacy of racism in his country.

Produced in the wake of the Trump presidency, Armageddon Time is a film whose urgency of introspection feels impelled by the truths laid bare during those years. Gray has said that the narrative is very faithful to his real-life experiences. It’s a fortunate coincidence that he attended the same preparatory school in Queens as the former president – not only does it underline the film’s intended contemporary relevance, but also allows for delightfully villainous appearances by Trump’s father Fred (John Diehl) and eldest sister Maryanne (Jessica Chastain).

The story takes place over two months in 1980, from the first day of school until the election of Ronald Reagan on 4 November, a momentous turning point that coincides with Paul’s loss of innocence. The personal and the historical are juxtaposed this way throughout. The Graffs, a Jewish family with Ukrainian roots, are presented as the personification of the American Dream: Paul’s great-grandmother fled persecution in the Ukraine for the UK, and his beloved grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) immigrated via Ellis Island to the US, where his family achieved a comfortable middle-class life. Aaron’s recollections of victimisation and struggle are removed from Paul’s own experience, but he finds them reflected in Johnny (Jaylin Webb), the sole Black pupil in his class at public school and a victim of constant antagonism by their teacher.

Jaylin Webb as Jonny with Banks Repeta in Armageddon Time

An instant rapport forms between Paul and Johnny. Working in digital for the first time – Gray had long been a vociferous holdout – the director and his DP Darius Khondji shoot New York in melancholic, autumnal hues, following the boys as they sneak away from a class trip, ride the graffitied subway, and exchange about their respective passions for drawing and space travel. The tone shifts dramatically after they’re caught smoking a joint at school. Paul’s parents (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong) move him to the aforementioned private school and Johnny, who lives with his senile grandmother, eventually ends up on the streets to escape social services.

Both Repeta and Webb give performances of rare delicacy, meeting the considerable demands of the script. By telling the story through the perspective of children, Gray portrays American social injustice without the shroud of apathy and rationality that is acquired through maturity. When at film’s end they are violently confronted with the reality of white privilege, the contrast between Paul’s panicked incomprehension and his parents’ passivity is as eloquent as it is damning.

Sight and Sound, Summer 2022

Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.

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