James Gray’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama features a wild, unsentimental performance by Banks Repeta – and a wonderful ’80s New York vibe
The title may conjure up an apocalypse, but James Gray’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama has nothing to do with the end of the world. Set in New York in 1980, a precocious 11-year-old boy is going through acute growing pains.
Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) has a very vivid imagination and amazing artistic talent, but his teachers consider him “slow” and distracted. He keeps getting into fights with his friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb), one of the few black kids at his inner-city school.
Sometimes it gets very dark. Paul, the white Jewish boy, and Johnny, the black boy from a broken family, are very close friends and yet end up on very different paths. Paul has some lucky charms (it helps that he’s white). However, Johnny is spat out by the system. He dreams of working for NASA, but no one sees his potential, but alone he tries to use it.
Jeremy Strong (TV’s insanely ambitious Kendall successor) and Anne Hathaway are inappropriately cast as Paul’s parents, who lead a humble existence in Queens. Papa Irving is a plumber, disappointed with how his life has turned out, a decent and humble man, but one with a violent bent. Mama Esther is a couch potato, worn down by daily worries. However, the only family member Paul listens to is his wise old grandfather, Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins, cast against the type of Jewish patriarch but in typical stealth form). Aaron is a Holocaust survivor who’s wise, funny, rich, resilient, and knows just how to spin a yarn.
Grey’s storytelling style is nostalgic and very evocative. Shot in grey, desaturated colors, the film brings the city he remembers from his childhood back to life and repeatedly throws in background references to the politics of the time. Ronald Reagan is running for President and Paul’s father is horrified, convinced that Ronnie is so stupid he might start a nuclear holocaust.
Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump, is also believed to be one of the benefactors of the private high school Johnny is placed in by his parents to keep him out of trouble. And Jessica Chastain has a cameo as another member of the Trump clan, Donald’s sister, attorney Maryanne.
But not everything rings true. Paul’s family is struggling to survive, and yet, with the help of his grandfather, the boy is suddenly able to attend one of the most prestigious schools in the neighborhood – a bastion of white privilege.
What gives the film its resonance is Repeta’s combative, unsentimental portrayal as a young leading lady. He’s not the doe-eyed innocent you often find in Hollywood movies about childhood. Instead, he has a subversive streak. In almost every scene, Gray will have the camera trained on his face as he tries to make sense of what the adults around him are up to.
They are generally deeply flawed. School teachers are tyrants. On the one hand there are predatory, naked capitalist types like Fred Trump and on the other hand those wimps left behind by the American system, like Paul’s own father.
We can sense from the start that Paul will find a way to escape his origins, but that he will deeply regret it. Gray’s accomplishment here is to make this boy’s life seem both hellish and strangely magical.
Now in cinemas