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James Gray's provocative cine-memoir is an illustration of the transition from the ethical pliancy of youth to the moral discernment of adulthood.
The challenges of turning life into fiction are legion, yet writer-director James Gray avoids almost all pitfalls in his gently provocative cine-memoir Armageddon Time. Based on his own experiences growing up as a sixth grader in Queens, New York, circa 1980, the film has the wispy and delicate feel of memory, though its dexterous narrative architecture provides a sturdy framework atop which Gray’s masterfully conjured remembrances can freely drift.
Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is the filmmaker’s on-screen surrogate, a talented young troublemaker who, on the first day of middle school, aggravates his teacher, Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), by drawing in class. His caricature of his by-the-book instructor is, so Paul attempts to explain, merely a way to make his classmates laugh. And one other student, Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), takes particularly appreciative notice.
This is Johnny’s second time through sixth grade, something that Mr. Turkeltaub makes caustic note of, which results in sparks flying and dual punishments meted out. And so this self-same pair of rabble-rousers become fast friends—though it doesn’t take long for Paul to clock a more-than-slight disconnect in how Turkeltaub treats Johnny as compared to him.
Paul is white and Johnny is Black. Simple as that. And yet, of course, as the iniquitous American experiment has shown time and again, not so simple. Armageddon Time sketches the tragic arc of the boys’ friendship (again, transposed from Gray’s actual exploits) against the backdrops of the Jewish Paul’s vibrant home life and a larger cultural reassertion, via the election of Ronald Reagan, of a number of dehumanizingly supremacist beliefs—racial, religious, and otherwise.
Gray courts plenty of danger with this setup, though he deftly avoids turning Armageddon Time into a guilty liberal apologia by maintaining a tricky balance between micro specificity and macro observation.
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