MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
There are many writer-directors right now who are turning to remembrances of childhood and adolescence as the setting for new films. Often these movies are full of moments of nostalgia and tenderness, but not this one.
It is 1980 in Queens, New York and 11-year-old Paul Graff (Banks Repita) seems determined to make life hard for everyone around him. He has a hard time concentrating on school work but is interested in drawing and painting. One day his teacher (Andrew Polk) intercepts a disrespectful caricature that Paul has drawn. It is time for a time out. Paul cannot stop creating problems in the classroom, which gets the attention of Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), the only Black student in the class, who is repeating sixth grade. They soon start hanging out with each other.
Back at home, Paul’s father (Strong) and mother (Hathaway) have to deal with their problem child as best as they can. Paul sleeps in late, refuses to eat his mother’s cooking (and uses the landline phone to order dumplings from a Chinese restaurant – during supper!). Paul’s older brother Ted (Ryan Sell) is attending a private school, with their grandparents (Anthony Hopkins and Tovah Feldshuh) paying the tuition. The Graff family is hoping their two boys can take advantage of the American dream, an aspiration denied to Jews in Europe during the Holocaust.
When the family discovers Paul’s friendship with Johnny, efforts are made to keep them apart and to get Paul transferred out of PS 173 and into private school as soon as possible.
Armageddon Time wisely presents its story through the eyes of a sixth grader, immature and naïve; so much of the unfolding tragedy around Paul is blissfully ignored. Paul’s grandfather is a source of love and support, offering Paul ways to express his creativity through model rockets and a set of oil paints.
As Paul finds ways to keep his friendship with Johnny ongoing, there are forces at work that are set in place to keep them apart. Armageddon Time is a coming-of-age story with a decidedly downbeat attitude. I wasn’t really satisfied with the movie until everything seemed to come together at the end.
The really good news from this bleak worldview is that James Gray is one of the best American filmmakers at work today. You may not want to spend much time in the world of his past, but if he was able to transcend his dismal upbringing, there should be hope for the rest of us to use our wits and our faith and rise up as well.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Four halos: A film that looks back on a troubled past, yet leaves room for hard lessons learned and glimmers of hope.
Three pitchforks: Rebellious childhood full of bad behavior, including strong language, experimental pot smoking, petty theft; racism; antisemitism; harsh disciplinary beating.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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