The Reel Review
Writer/director James Gray (Ad Astra, The Lost City of Z) draws from his own childhood in Queens, New York in this highly personal, coming-of-age story about a Jewish-American sixth grader discovering privilege, racism and injustice when he befriends the lone Black classmate at his public school in 1980. It stars Anne Hathaway, Anthony Hopkins and Banks Repeta (The Black Phone, The Devil All the Time).
Gray’s childhood friend, cinematographer Darius Khondji, uses a muted color palette to capture the dreary look and feel of the film’s message and – no surprise – Oscar winners Hopkins and Hathaway give the film’s most touching and authentic performances, as young Paul’s mensch of a grandfather and his concerned mother, who enrolls him in an exclusive private school after Paul and his friend get caught smoking marijuana in the restroom at school.
The main problem with the film, however, is Gray’s story, which comes off as self-indulgent and way too slight for such strong performances. From some way too on-the-nose symbolism (family members constantly trying to “awaken” the sleeping boy) to the litany of Ronald Reagan references and some odd cameos from John Diehl (Out of the Wild, Miami Vice) and Jessica Chastain as Fred and Maryanne Trump – Donald’s father and oldest sister – it seems that Gray is trying to illustrate the unfair advantages of White privilege and apologize for his own. But the film’s one-dimensional treatment of the lone Black character – well played by an impressive Jaylin Webb – makes that apology feel disingenuous.
• When the project was first announced, Oscar Isaac, Cate Blanchett and Robert De Niro were cast as some of the key characters, later dropping out and replaced by Jeremy Strong, Jessica Chastain and Anthony Hopkins.
• The film’s title is in reference to The Clash song “Armagideon Time,” and President Ronald Reagan’s frequent references to armageddon in speeches when referring to homosexuality, which Gray says was traumatizing for young kids.
• James Gray says his father died of COVID just after production wrapped on the film in December 2021, before he could see it.
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