Cannes 2022: Armageddon Time and understanding your privilege
Although certainly not without supporters, James Gray is one of those American directors who consistently fly under the Academy’s radar, finding their safe spot as critical and indie darlings. The 53-year-old seems tired of this state of affairs, and with his autobiographical Armageddon Time he attempts to finally let go of the label of inaccessibility surrounding his works.
An unlikely occurrence in Cannes’ main competition, Armageddon Time in its premise reads like a typical awards-oriented bait; a story of a young teenage boy growing up in 1980s New York. Unlike all the films that might come to your mind upon reading the synopsis, however, this one wasn’t created out of nostalgia. On the contrary, Armageddon Time is an anti-nostalgic tale of social divides and what impact they inevitably inflict on American offspring.
Sixth-grader Paul (played by Michael Banks Repeta) lives in a middle-class household of Jewish immigrants. His mom (Anne Hathaway) hopelessly tries to connect with him, while his father (Jeremy Strong) is as emotionally distant as he can be – unless he gets mad, only to get across to his son through violence. Paul receives his life lessons from his grandpa (Anthony Hopkins), who is by far the only person able to understand the boy’s thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Yet, the parents are not painted as dysfunctional figures. They are only disappointed that their son didn’t turn out to be what they wanted him to be.
Paul’s parents won’t give up easily though, firmly believing that there’s still a way to get his life back on track. They want him to fit in, follow the rules, and become a more successful version of his father. The boy, however, doesn’t dream of academic achievements. He wants to become an artist, at least as long as it involves trips to the Guggenheim Museum instead of doing assignments in class.
As believed by his parents, the main obstacle for Paul to change his attitude is his school, a public institution, which dramatically lacks in discipline. The boy avoids his assignments like fire, spending every afternoon hanging out with his best friend, Johnny, doing all sorts of irresponsible (and sometimes illegal) activities.
What Paul fails to realise is that Johnny could never get the same treatment in life. He’s Black, comes from a disprivileged background, and will likely never finish school, ultimately falling into an inescapable spiral of low-income jobs or getting caught up in local gangs. While Paul’s excesses are easily disregarded as childhood silliness and playfulness, the same behaviours could pose a serious threat to Johnny if caught by the authorities.
The point in which Paul finds himself is one where his childhood innocence and dreams are on an irreversible collision path with the harsh reality of the adult world. He’s unaware of his own privilege, but he slowly begins to realise that the truth about America might not exactly be what he thought.
Paul’s main problem, however, is the looming threat of being transferred to an all-white, affluent private school. The line of inequality between him and Johnny, once invisible, starts to appear in front of Paul’s eyes. To make things worse, there is nothing he can do about it, other than hopelessly dreaming of running away and starting a new life with his friend. But as it is with dreams of this kind, they have never been intended to come true.
James Gray understands that childhood is more often a time of hurtful realisations than a time for dreams to come true. While tackling the topics of racism and social divides, Armageddon Time doesn’t intend to be a form of reckoning with that period of American history. Instead, Gray puts children on the foreground, painting a tender portrait of a world where the future doesn’t really matter, and how this world approaches its twilight.