Kenneth Branagh’s childhood was transformed by the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Mike Mills had very eccentric parents and Cameron Crowe was a teenage rock critic — and we know these things because all three directors have made films that drew upon their own childhoods. And now it’s James Gray’s turn to offer his own look back with “Armageddon Time,” which premiered to a rousing ovation in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday.
And what does the film tell us about the young Gray? For starters, he was a dreamer, he was a brat, he didn’t understand the privileges he was born into and he went on his own path. In other words, he was the kind of person who just might grow up to make one of the least sentimental entries in what has typically been a seriously sentimental genre of film, and one of the least nostalgic examples of a form that is almost by definition nostalgic.
Gray is hard on himself in “Armageddon Time”; Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), the film’s stand-in for the director as a sixth grader, is never cute, unless you want to dote on the angelic curls and ignore the purposefully stubborn personality. And he’s hard on the society in which Paul finds himself, where privilege is taken for granted by those who have the right class and color to get it. The film makes that point even before we see Fred Trump showing up as a benefactor for Paul’s new private school, or U.S. attorney and former graduate Marianne Trump (a one-scene cameo from Jessica Chastain) talking to the kids about how they’ll have to work hard for everything they get.
It’s an acerbic, tough look back, which makes it a rarity in a genre that often (and sometimes effectively) dons rose-colored glasses. Gray has turned to this subject matter on the heels of a sci-fi epic that didn’t quite work, “Ad Astra,” and he’s doing it at a rich time for this particular genre: Coming-of-age movies based on their directors’ lives have flourished in recent years with highly personal drams that include Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God” and Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast.”
In many cases, going personal has meant going simpler: Cuarón and Branagh conspicuously turned to black and white for their films, while Sorrentino’s was significantly less florid and Felliniesque than usual for him, even though Federico Fellini was a off-screen character in the movie. For Gray, it means dark rooms, family conversations that don’t resolve anything and richly textured but largely static camera work from cinematographer Darius Khondji.
The film evokes New York City prior to the presidential election of 1980, when Ronald Reagan was promising to turn the country into a shining city on a hill. Paul Graff’s family, Jewish immigrants who fled a Europe where they were at risk, see through Reagan’s lines, but Paul is less interested in politics than in turning himself into a famous artist, as long as it doesn’t involve having to actually do any of the assignments he’s given in art class.
Paul is immediately branded a troublemaker by the imperious sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Turtletaub (who’s not wrong, mind you), and he becomes friends with the other class malcontent, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), one of the Black kids who’s being bused to P.S. 173 in Queens.
The setting brings Gray back to the boroughs where he set most of his early films — “Little Odessa,” “The Yards” and “We Own the Night” — before he headed to the early 20th century for “The Immigrant,” the Amazon jungle for “The Lost City of Z” and outer space for “Ad Astra.” But this story is clearly more personal than those, although the director’s memories of these streets and this family life never lead to romanticization.
As Paul’s parents, Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong are at their wits’ end much of the time; mom tries to connect but Paul turns away, while dad can only get across to Paul with threats or actual violence. Neither can accept his desire to be an artist, and Paul can’t accept it when is rebellion finds him smoking marijuana with Johnny in the boy’s room and getting himself banished to the private school of the Trumps and their ilk.
The only person who can communicate with Paul, really, is his grandfather, with enough wry, playful and hard-earned wisdom to make the kid listen. And we listen, too, because grandpa is played by Anthony Hopkins, who has few peers at being both commanding and heartbreaking without ever breaking a sweat or raising his voice.
We can see that Paul’s mostly an uncooperative brat because he’s scared to death that he’ll seem uncool unless he’s always putting on his rebellious face, and we know that he’ll eventually figure things out.
By the time things wind down and we hear the Clash’s “Armagideon Time” on the soundtrack (two hours after it was way in the background of the first scene), nobody’s really healed and nothing’s resolved. Reagan has won a resounding election, dad has denounced American voters as “morons, from sea to shining sea” and there’s been loss in the family.
And Paul, just maybe, is ready to grow up and someday make a movie as unsentimental, and as unexpectedly touching, as “Armageddon Time.”
While the film was greeted with healthy applause in its first press screening, the audience at the Cannes premiere in the Grand Theatre Lumiere treated Gray and his actors to a seven-minute standing ovation, a good showing even in a setting where ovations are almost de rigeur. Gray himself was visibly touched as he told the crowd, “It’s my story.”