Armageddon Time gets my vote for most disingenuous movie title of 2022. For those of you expecting a disaster picture, this is actually an intimately-scaled memory piece specifically set in Queens, NY in the autumn of 1980; its title is a riff on the Clash song "Armagideon Time", released a year earlier and played on the soundtrack but not especially relevant to the plot.
The story centers around Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), the 11-year-old son of a working class Jewish family. He has just entered the sixth grade and has only one friend: Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), a poor black kid forced to repeat sixth grade. Armageddon Time recounts the escalating degree of trouble the two boys get into, but the end product is like an episode of Leave It to Beaver: well-meaning kids making dumb decisions and facing the consequences. Except that one kid is white and the other is black, so the consequences vary greatly.
I understand the story is autobiographical for writer/director James Gray; presumably in deference to the facts of his own life, he opts for subtlety over melodrama and has no interest in tidy conclusions or typical coming of age arcs. I applaud this approach, but despite heavy themes like racism, death, and child abuse, we the audience ultimately don't feel much of an impact.
The main problem with Armageddon Time is its poor character definition – and the casting choices don't help. As Paul's beloved grandfather, Anthony Hopkins is a standout, even if it's hard to buy him as a Russian Jew. Anne Hathaway does her best as Paul's mom, but in the end her character boils down to "she loves her father" and fades into the background. Like Hathaway, Jeremy Strong is an excellent actor, but he doesn't quite convince as Paul's plumber dad. And again, his character is unclear: is he awful? thoughtful? supportive? cold? smart? stupid? Perhaps Gray is saying, "He's based on my own father, who was all of these things", but Strong's tone varies so much scene by scene that I felt he had no idea who he was playing. Finally, Repeta is a good little thespian, but with such an obvious sweetness that I couldn't buy into his relentless disobedience. In short, he just seems too nice to be this naughty. Webb, for his part, strikes the right balance of troubled and likable, and Gray gives us a real sense of a life slipping through the cracks. It's the most affecting thing about the film, apart from Hopkins's twinkly performance.
Look, the movie's fine. It's generally realistic and it doesn't pander. Yet in spite of its bombastic title, it's simply too personal for its own good.