Armageddon Time: Childhood memories without the rose-coloured tint

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Director James Gray must still be working through some daddy issues, given its prevalence in his two most recent works, Ad Astra and now Armageddon Time.

In the former, a masterful but divisive space film with Brad Pitt in the leading role, the daddy issues almost overwhelm everything else, but in Armageddon Time, it’s just one of its rich thematic explorations.

But it’s still there, and you can’t help but draw the line back to Ad Astra and to Gray.

The complex relationships between Armageddon Time’s young Paul (Banks Repeta) with his father Irving (Jeremy Strong) and his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) are so prominent in this semi-autobiographical story, it’s hard to get away from it.

Armageddon Time is a much, much more personal, intimate film for Gray. Inspired by his childhood growing up in New York’s Queens borough in the pre-Reagan era of 1980, the film is an evocative slice into Gray’s formative years.

It has the distinct vibe of having come from someone whose memories of that time are still strong, and maybe always just bubbling before the surface. Art and storytelling can often be a cathartic experience for the audience but even more so for the creator.

One wonders what Gray has managed to work through with Armageddon Time, especially when it’s clear he isn’t interested in varnishing his memories with a rose tint. Unlike Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, this isn’t a story driven by nostalgia.

The preteen Paul is an outlier in his Jewish-American family. His aspirations to be an artist doesn’t gibe with his parents’ ambition for a more practical future, and that makes him a “problem child”.

When Paul and his only friend, a Black kid named Johnny (Jaylin Webb), are caught smoking pot, his parents pack him off to his older brother’s private school and ban him from seeing Johnny again.

Paul finds himself in a new milieu, one where unthinking privilege and racism are far starker, and it awakens in him a new consciousness of how things are in America.

Those textures are not necessarily textual to Paul, but they are to the film, where Gray harnesses his remembrances to explore the vast difference in opportunity between Paul and Johnny, two kids with similar dreams.

Armageddon Time is emotionally honest storytelling, with a focused introspection on middle class privilege and the parental expectations that can buoy and burden, all packaged within a family drama.

Unlike Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, the weight of Gray’s story is almost entirely on his onscreen avatar Paul. It’s a thoughtful and mature performance from Repeta, carrying the load of the film.

Even though the performances of his older co-stars including Hopkins, Strong and Anne Hathaway, who portrays Paul’s mother, are reliably impressive, the film flits in and out of their spheres.

They’re presented as Paul sees them, and it’s not as endearing as Branagh’s Buddy saw his, except for his grandfather who Paul deeply loves and connects with.

They are incomplete impressions – it often feels as if those adult characters are robbed of more screentime to balance out Paul’s perspective. You want more of them.

But that’s a deliberate choice in this patchy albeit eloquent coming-of-age tale with a lot to offer.

Rating: 3/5

Armageddon Time is in cinemas now

Originally published as Armageddon Time: Childhood memories without the rose-coloured tint

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