Armageddon Time isn’t nearly as badass as it sounds. There are no explosions. No meteors. No Bruce Willis. The movie pitches itself as a “deeply personal coming-of-age story about the strength of family and the generational pursuit of the American Dream,” which is about the most generic and cliched description of a period-piece coming-of-age drama you could come up with.
The movie itself, written and directed by James Gray and inspired by his own childhood, says it stars Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, and Anthony Hopkins, but its actual headliners are Banks Repeta, who plays young Paul Graff, and Jaylin Webb, who stars as Johnny Davis, the only black kid Paul knows.
Armageddon Time is set in 1979 (?) and follows Paul as he attempts to navigate a new school, a seemingly challenging home life, and a new friendship. There’s really not a lot of true hardship at hand here, folks, though observed through the eyes of a kid, the obstacles are endless.
Repeta gives a strong if not quite breakthrough performance; he serves as an entertaining presence amidst the heavy-hitter cast that surrounds him. Hathaway is great in a surprisingly small role; she makes the most of her limited screen time, but ultimately isn’t given much to do. Strong has a bigger and arguably more important role, though as good as he is in “Succession,” I am not fully convinced he is an actor with much range. Thankfully, Gray gives plenty of weight to Sir Hopkins, who makes the most of his prominent role as the endearing and winkingly wise grandfather.
Davis is really good as well, though Gray either purposefully or not seems disinterested in digging beneath his skin (and skin color).
The reason I dwell on the acting is that it’s the cast, and their chemistry, that makes Armageddon Time work as well as it does. Gray’s screenplay is solid too, but there is nothing particularly remarkable or even memorable about the story. And yet Gray directs with confidence, never trying to push his film out of its comfort zone or veering away from its heart. The cast operates within these confines extremely well, painting fully realized if fleeting characters.
There’s not much more to it than that. The movie sort of just ends, and while that decision offers in its own right commentary on the societal issues at play, those looking for more fulfillment or closure will want just a little bit more. Gray seems disinterested in judging what is presumably his younger self, because how much can you judge a child who does a few stupid things and doesn’t think through the consequences? Still, if Armageddon Time is meant to serve as an apology letter or some form of atonement, it doesn’t quite work.
Good but not great, well done but hardly memorable, Armageddon Time struggles to set itself apart from the countless other semi-true coming-of-age movies put to screen over the decades, even if it’s a pleasant enough experience as it stands. Maybe some explosions and Bruce Willis would have helped.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.