In school drama ‘Armageddon Time,’ rules prove hard to follow | Movies | Detroit

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Courtesy of Focus Features

Jaylin Webb and Banks Repeta in armageddon time.

With armageddon time, James Gray joins the ranks of his middle-aged (and sometimes older) peers eager to revisit, abstractly or directly, the substance and sentiment of their own respective childhoods. With Steven Spielberg The Fabelmans later this month and the release of Celine Sciamma Little mom earlier this year – with PT Anderson’s Licorice Pizza and Richard Linklater Apollo 10 1⁄2 (as good as Childhood a few years ago), something seems to be in the air.

For Gray, the ground here is noticeably more intimate than in the self-reflective Ad Astra or its curious colonial decor Lost City of Z, reflecting the gritty melodramas that made up most of his career. While the white, Jewish and working-class experience of New York’s outlying neighborhoods is not new territory for Gray (see also Little Odessa, Construction sites, two loversand The immigrant), this is an experience of which he questions the premises and the very contexts head-on.

armageddon time opens with a series of classroom disruptions at New York’s PS 173, with two students cementing a quick friendship through a slightly mischievous partnership. Refusing to take their sixth-grade teacher seriously (understandable offense), Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) and Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), Jewish (also white) and black respectively, quickly become targets of their teacher, who comes to assume reliably the worst of everyone. With the clown in the classroom being a natural cornerstone of underdog social performance, but one that puts their status at school at risk, the two quickly find themselves locked – and with little alternative – in a cyclical rhythm that places them decisively on the margins of their school community. , and alienating them from even its most basic resources. Gray’s management leaves little doubt as to whether racial identity – as well as a kind of individualistic ‘bootstraps’ ideology plays a part in this, with both boys eager to treat even their early upbringing like a job. by day.

This pre-professional tenure creates ambient pressure on the film’s wide-eyed preteens, though Johnny experiences it with greater sternness and more obvious bias than Paul. Paul, whose mother’s maiden name might once have marked him as Jewish, experiences a freedom Johnny cannot, able to enroll and move about with relative freedom in a white-dominated society. Although working-class, the film makes it clear that Paul enjoys privileges that Johnny’s Blackness leaves him cut off from, with Paul’s social upbringing in this reality and his efforts to account for it in response being the film’s key arc.

At home, the pressures are not very different; Paul’s mother (a stable and convincing Anne Hathaway) and his outspoken and outgoing grandfather hold tightly to his family’s refugee history, pushing their successors – as so many parents do – to succeed (mostly in the sense of “thrive”) in a way their own ancestors could never have imagined. Gray shows that this hope in practice is both understandable and double-edged, bringing harm of various orders (physical, doctrinal, mental, and social) into the lives of children that they are meant to carry to relative greatness. When Paul’s elders discuss his artistic aspirations, his father (a deceptively aged and often frenetic Jeremy Strong) insists that The art of success is the only book on the subject he should care about, dismissing the potential of drawing or painting as anything more than a hobby. The film’s focus, here as elsewhere, remains on Paul’s education in a broader sense, in areas more social than academic, treating Paul’s academic success in the narrow sense of his parents: as a potential passport to the upper echelons of society.

Though pressured and often tough, Gray makes life at Paul’s home just as comfortable on modest terms, with what looks like light amber filters and careful ’70s décor giving his home space a homey feel. and slightly dull. The clear meaning – embodied by all of Paul’s family, the places and the design – is that of a newly acquired stability haunted by the specter of both recent and historic precariousness. Paul’s experience of this reality – and the pressures imposed by the adults and peers around him – is mediated in vivid and viscerally compelling terms, with Darius Khondji’s camera work feeling almost directly in its grip on perceptions from Paul. In most images, a shallow depth of field covers what is not the camera’s main object in a film of dewy gauze; in others, like with a chilling sequence in which a camera almost falls down the stairs, visions of vivid, momentary experiences are much sharper. Navigating the intimacy of youthful experience without lacking thought and attention, Khondji’s camerawork (often seen in David Fincher’s films, and recently in Uncut Gems) proves essential in situating Paul’s experience in relation to those felt both immediately and widely around him.

As elaborated by the film’s array of lessons and variously formal teachers, Paul spends the film’s time navigating conflicting directions and examples pushing him in turn toward resistance and conformity. “Don’t make yourself reprehensible for once,” his grandfather said at early dinner; later, he insists that Paul stand up for justice on both a small and large scale – even in the face of personal risk to himself. But this first lesson is delivered in a concrete case, the second uttered in a more abstract case, calling into question the substance of this alleged moral rule. Rightly so, the film suggests that context is everything – and each social, professional and academic world comes with its own web of protocols and issues that come with respecting it.

But the film’s environmental spheres are not its only context; another key is who, and therefore who others think, you are. Paul’s freedoms, circumscribed as they are, are constantly thrown into stark relief by Johnny’s tumultuous circumstances, which leave less room for success or failure, reliably devoid as he benefits from the doubt. Whether armageddon time has a lesson to offer is that even though across contexts a given rule can barely hold, the grip of hierarchies proves to be much firmer. The film’s dominating world of mythological bootstrap ideology makes almost everything – and especially one’s personal power – extremely uncertain, even if some hold more of it than others. If Gray dramatizes all of this as a problem for his young white avatar instead of those worse off seems questionable as a premise, it can at least be said that he defines this experience of American inequity as not only personally affecting – but as something far, far bigger than itself.

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