“Armageddon Time” (2022): Not coming of age, but coming of self

James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” is a quiet, nuanced film that embraces important, difficult topics with a gentle thoughtfulness embedded in self-reflection. One of the most persistent trends in modern filmmaking is the auteur semi-biopic — the film in which a director of some repute crafts a narrative from a mish-mash of their own real-life experiences with analogous fictional events to fill in the dramatic gaps. This kind of film often stands on a thin line between explanation and justification, between an apology for their personal failures or those of their previous work, dwindling into a pseudo-tortured artist portrait. This is not to say that these films are meaningless or trivial, but that they are by their very nature self-serving, and many directors cannot resist the chance to nurse their egos or dramatize their grievances. 

Enter “Armageddon Time,” which approaches the project with a soft sincerity that at once resists the trappings of its predecessors and transcends their achievements. Centering on the instantly sympathetic sixth-grader Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), “Armageddon Time” dexterously weaves together both the complications of being 11 and the complications of being Jewish in 1980s Queens, New York. The Cold War is hot and Reagan is running for president, but Paul wants to be a famous artist one day. He’s struggling in school and getting into trouble with his new friend, a Black peer named Johnny (Jaylin Webb), whose reputation and ethnicity earn the ire of their teacher, Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk). Paul’s family is deeply worried about him, not just because his principal says he’s slow or his grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), is the only one who can get through to him, but because he’s Jewish, and that means people are out for him. Once he’s moved to a wealthy private school, Paul is left to reckon with the fences between him and his rich classmates, between him and his parents, between art and money, between him and Johnny.

Even as these broad political discussions are important, what might be more important is the self that you become as you operate within them

Even as “Armageddon Time” ambitiously grapples with a series of loaded topics, it does so with a steady gentleness. The colors are soft and sepia, the camerawork is smooth. The performances are convincing and dramatic, but never overblown. The score just trickles beneath each scene, occasionally throwing in a dash of punk vibes to punctuate. There’s no big lesson, no thesis statement that you need to leave with. In the few moments when it chooses to be on the nose, it touches down for a kiss rather than the customary punch of blockbuster activism. At its most dramatic, it lands like a hug at a funeral. At its most muted, it leaves a respectful distance for the audience to think. Even as it evokes other kinetic, weighty coming-of-age stories, most notably Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959), Gray’s honest and human direction trusts itself and trusts you, choosing to simply whisper when other films shout.

It’s complicated, this living business, and it’s rarely straightforward.

Some viewers may wish that it did throw a heavier hand, that it did wade more clearly into the intersection of identity and society, and the consequences thereof. But what Gray suggests is that even as these broad political discussions are important, what might be more important is the self that you become as you operate within them. We are not societal levers, not merely actors in a script. We’re people, whether we walk without shoes or go to private school in a suit and tie. We don’t just grow up and become businesspeople with families and houses; we live whole lives in the meantime. It’s complicated, this living business, and it’s rarely straightforward. “Armageddon Time” wades into that complication, never proposing a solution or promising that it’s easy, but reminding us that trying to live well, to become ourselves and, as Aaron puts it, “be a real mensch” to those around us, is still worth figuring out, even when society’s structures are broken and the world seems ready to call it a day.