SDIFF 2022 Opening Night presents ‘Armageddon Time’: Be a Mensch if you can

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Reviewed by Alicia Glass

 Set in the early 80’s, with roots stemming from director James Gray’s personal history, comes a story of the ties that bind, and gag, family and the generational pursuit of the American dream.

Meet Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), artist and dreamer, lover of space and despiser of the rigidities of middle school. His extended family is somewhat lapsed Jewish, personified in the blunt if gentle relationship with Grandpa Aaron Rabinowitz (Sir Anthony Hopkins), and his stories of immigration to escape the Nazi hunting parties. Matter of fact, Grandpa is the only one that Paul seems to get along with for any extended length of time – Mom Esther Graff (Anne Hathaway) might be the head of the PTA, but that gives her no power whatsoever, either inside or outside the home; patriarch Irving (Jeremy Strong) reluctantly administers beatings when Paul inevitably screws up and is therefore a figure of terror most of the time; brother Ted (Ryan Sell) attends an affluent private school and is yet another bully in Paul’s life; Grandma Mickey (Tovah Feldshuh) is the proud kind of tarnished Jewish nobility, who thinks Paul should attend brother Ted’s private school as a matter of course; and Aunt Ruth (Marcia Haufrecht) and Uncle Louis (Teddy Coluca) are living overbearing Jewish stereotypes that constantly grace the dinner table with their often literal color commentary.

A new school year has begun and with it comes a new teacher, Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), more often than not called Turkey-somethingorother, stoic and unbending for the troublemakers in his class, of which somehow Paul has managed to make the list, along with his new black friend, Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb).

The general feeling is that having black kids in the school is a relatively new experience, and that all non-white children are thieves, low-lifes, degenerates, even this early in middle school. Poor Johnny tries his best to keep a cheerful (or at least passive) outlook on the whole deal, and is a normal kid enjoying normal kid things just like Paul – science and outer-space exploration, the popular music scene (in this case the Sugar Hill Gang and their new style of “rapping” music), and general freedom from the persecution of adults.

Two main themes seem to run through the film – the early labeling of poor Paul as a “slow” student, despite his clear artistic sensibilities, much to the rage and shame of his extended family, and the racist dismissal of his friend Johnny by, well, everyone around him, except for Paul himself. “Troublemaker” Johnny already had clear strikes against him before even attending school, with his lack of caring family save for his indigent grandmother and his head in the clouds of distracting music with Sugar Hill Gang concerts, it’s no wonder he sorely wants to escape the gross reality of his current life, where the very color of his skin earns him immediate dismissal most of the time. It was only Paul, the supposedly slow dreamer with his head past the clouds and out into space and art, who truly saw Johnny as just another human who’d be worth making friends with. And after the death of his beloved Grandfather, the only other person that Paul got along with, the elder of the family who seemed happy to accept Paul just as he was and encouraged him to be a Mensch – to be right and do right – Paul really needs his only friend left. Though what happens to that friendship in the third act and that rather abrupt not-ending, frankly made me sad.

Full of often-misplaced heart and the shenanigans of rebellious boys in a world of never-ending shifting priorities and constant upheaval, Armageddon Time is a lovely, if entirely melancholy, journey through the early memories of Director James Gray.