Not So Childish Things
Review | 'Armageddon Time' Offers Up Nostalgic yet Timeless Coming-of-Age Saga
Chalk up another one in the potentially fruitful yet too-rare annals of films based on an auteur’s childhood. Fellini and Bergman pulled it off, with art and catharsis to spare. With the refreshingly real, warm and raw-ish film Armageddon Time, writer-director James Gray (Little Odessa, Ad Astra) digs into his formative past to pull off an impressive feat as well. The film itself has a storied past, having planned to launch early in 2020, with a cast including Cate Blanchett, Robert DeNiro, Oscar Isaac and others. COVID-era realities had other plans, and DeNiro and Isaac had slipped out of the line-up by the time shooting began in 2021. (Blanchett has a small role still.) Cut to 2022: The film earned a long ovation and a Palme D’Or nomination at this year’s Cannes festival.
Chief among the film’s virtues is its status as a coming-of-age story minus the genre’s usual formulaic trappings. We’re so thoroughly trained by the coming-of-age genre, in fact, that we may find ourselves a little startled by the sharp character turns of our 11-year-old protagonist Paul (precocious newcomer Banks Repeta), the “mostly true” proxy version of young creator Gray. Growing up in a frenetic Jewish household in Queens circa 1980, Paul seems like a split personality, now politely towing the family/private school line, now chafing against its hypocrisies. Paul’s rebel side manifests itself in his friendship with a young and socially unmoored black man-in-training Johnny (Jaylin Webb), and wild schemes on the far side of legality. His mother (Anne Hathaway) is concerned about his life and future, and his father’s irascibility, while his doting grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) nurtures his creative impulses and sense of racial indignation.
Of course, Paul is in a split personality zone — one of many stages of youth wriggling through landmines before reaching adulthood. Gray tells his tale with a delicate balance of insider savvy and objective discovery, as if he doesn’t quite know where the story will lead.
He also shrewdly folds in just enough period piece touches to give us “you are there” brand veracity. Take, for instance, the sudden presence of old Fred Trump (played by former Ojai resident John Diehl) as he gives Paul’s elite private school a pompous lesson in snobbery. We know how that story ends.
Armageddon Time is screening at Paseo Nuevo Cinema. For more information, visit metrotheatres.com.
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