What is it going to take for Cannes regular James Gray to get noticed outside the festival and a group of critics (but not all!). Even his more mainstream recent effort with A-lister Ad Astra did not exactly set the box office alight and was met with mixed reviews (yet it was one of the 2019's finest films...).
In his latest, Armageddon Time, he tackles the semi-autobiographical coming of age, with a starry cast, an interesting proposition from him, more accustomed to violence, physical and emotional. This kind of subject makes you fear the worse with many directors, with the worry they might turn sentimental and a personal subject making them forget to write a compelling story. No such thing here however...In appearance, Armageddon Time is a classical nostalgic coming of age with some great period production values but there is no saccharine filled embarrassing moments or looking back with rose tinted glasses. Recalling his upbringing in a Jewish family in New York at the start of the '80s, James Gray finds the perfect balance between the youthful naivety of his own younger self Paul (an impressive turn by Banks Repeta) and the reality of the world that he can just about grasp.
A tad rebellious (but not too much) and already socially conscious, Paul does not quite have a grasp on the real status of his family, believing them to be wealthier than they actually are and assuming societal wounds can easily be healed. About to reach the transition part of his teenage years, there is still a child in him, with a scene in a bathroom in which he is severely reprimanded by his dad Irving (an outstanding Jeremy Strong) and filmed from a slightly lower point of view that is unexpectedly terrifying!
There are moments of tenderness too, mainly with his grandfather (played with much restraint by Anthony Hopkins), with scenes of such simplicity and yet real
And what a time to grow up as the film also evokes the sharp turn into Reaganism American society is about to embark too, with the feeling nothing is every quite going to be the same and a hilarious but chilling cameo by Jessica Chastain as Maryanne Trump is as hilarious as it is chilling.
A moving but never mawkish coming of age, Armageddon Time sees James Gray embracing a new genre for him yet he is at the top of his game.
Review by Laurent De Alberti
Star rating: ★★★★★
Official Selection, In Competition
Armageddon Time. USA 2022. Directed by James Gray. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Banks Repeta, Jeremy Strong...)