‘Armageddon Time’ Review: Hard Lessons About Life in America

New York in 1980 is the setting for James Gray’s brooding, bittersweet story of family conflict and interracial friendship.

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By A.O. Scott

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Can you remember the first day of sixth grade? Would you even want to? James Gray, in the opening scene of “Armageddon Time,” his tender and lacerating new film, brings it all back with clammy precision.

We are at Public School 173 in Queens, New York, at our desks in Mr. Turkeltaub’s class. It’s 1980 — maybe you’re old enough to remember that, too — and two boys are about to get in trouble, one for mouthing off during roll call and the other for drawing a picture of the teacher (Andrew Polk) with the body of a turkey. It seems like if your name was Turkeltaub and you taught sixth grade you might be able to take the joke, but on the other hand, maybe not being able to take the joke is the whole reason you’re teaching sixth grade in the first place. This is a man, after all, whose job requires him to utter the words “gym is a privilege, people” with a straight face.

“Armageddon Time” isn’t about Mr. Turkeltaub, though his contempt for his students helps to propel its plot. It’s not about gym class either, but it is — astutely, uncomfortably and in the end tragically — about privilege.

The two troublemakers — Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb) and Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) — become friends, bonded by their dislike of Turkey (as they call him when he’s out of earshot) and also by the kind of shared interests that connect boys on the edge of adolescence. For all their rebellious bravado in Turkey’s class, there is still something childlike in the way Johnny and Paul approach the world, and a sweet softness in the mannerisms of the young actors who play them.

Johnny collects NASA mission patches and dreams of becoming an astronaut. Paul thinks the Beatles will get back together soon. He also tells Johnny — matter-of-factly rather than boastfully — that his family is “super rich.” This isn’t quite true. Paul’s father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), is a boiler repairman. His mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway), is a home-economics teacher and P.T.A. officer who is considering a run for the local school board. With help from Esther’s parents (Anthony Hopkins and Tovah Feldshuh), they are sending Paul’s older brother, Ted (Ryan Sell), to private school, where Paul will eventually join him.

In a fairly short time — between the start of school and Thanksgiving, with the election of Ronald Reagan in between — Paul will arrive at a clearer, harsher understanding of how power, status and money work in America, a lesson that will come at Johnny’s expense.

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