New “Armageddon Time” Clip Teases Writer/Director James Gray’s Most Personal Film
A young boy named Paul (Banks Repeta) is wearing his new private school uniform, which not only comes with a blazer and tie but also, absurdly, a briefcase. He’s unhappy about this development. His mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway), thinks he looks handsome, while his father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), sees the picture of a hard-working young man. “This says I am ready to work, I come as a student,” Irving says. Paul’s unhappiness increases at this comment. “You just want me to be like you,” Paul says. Twice. Irving corrects him, and in so doing, lays out his entire case for what he wants most in the world. “No,” Irving says, “no big boy, I want you to be a whole lot better than me; that’s what I want.”
It’s a brief, minute-long scene, as domestic and understated as they come, yet there’s an unmistakable sense of gravity in the moment of a writer/director and his performers channeling something potent and real. Armageddon Time represents the most personal film yet from James Gray, a filmmaker of immense skill who has plied deep space and the Amazon jungle to explore the relationships between fathers and sons. In his last excellent feature, Ad Astra, Brad Pitt’s astronaut had to literally travel to Neptune to reconnect with his father. In Armageddon Time, Gray’s keeping things a little closer to home.
Gray’s latest is a personal coming-of-age drama set at the cusp of Ronald Reagan’s America, a place of bruising optimism and deep-seated, still largely unexplored racism. Armageddon Time made its world premiere at Cannes this year and was met with critical acclaim. The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody wrote that “Gray lovingly conjures what he cherished while recognizing that it was inseparable from the epochal horrors that its seeming normalcy was fostering.” Time‘s Stephanie Zacharek called it “quietly extraordinary,” while Vox‘s Alissa Wilkinson said it is “truly poignant, troubling, and ultimately brilliant work of memory and self-implication.”
The story is centered on the budding friendship between Paul Gaff (Repeta) and Johnny (Jaylin Webb), two sixth graders at PS 173 in Queens. Paul is white and Johnny is black, and in early 1980s America, this kind of friendship, while commonplace in New York City, could still be met with unsubtle racism, to say nothing of violence. Eventually, the boys are separated when the rebellious Paul is removed from the public school he attends with Jaylin and sent off to a private school that requires, as the above clip reveals, for children to dress up like little men. In the film’s official trailer, Paul reveals to his grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), that the kids at his new private school say “bad words about the black kids,” Aaron asks him what he said in response, Paul says, “Obviously nothing, of course.” Grandpop Aaron isn’t impressed by this, telling Paul about how his own mother fled Europe for America because of the persecution she faced for being Jewish. “They hated us then, and they still hate us,” he says. “Next time those schmucks say anything bad about those kids, you’re going to say something,” he says.
Having made trips to the Amazon in The Lost City of Z and deep space in the aforementioned Ad Astra sizzle with specificity, Gray comes home in Armageddon Time, taking direct aim at his own childhood and the things, some good and some very, very bad, that shaped him.
Armageddon Time arrives on October 28.
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Featured image: (L to R) Anne Hathaway stars as Esther Graff and Michael Banks Repeta stars as Paul Graff in director James Gray’s ARMAGEDDON TIME, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of Focus Features