CANNES FESTIVAL: James Gray’s return to his childhood with “ARMAGEDDON TIME”

CANNES, France — There were problems with booking seats to the screening of James Gray’s latest film, “Armageddon Time,” this caused frustration. Finally, I managed to snag a ticket to join my group. Gray doesn’t come to the Cannes Festival often.

Fascinated by marginal characters left to fend for themselves, like Joaquin Phoenix’s Leonard Kraditor of “Two Lovers,” Gray casts a spotlight on those Americans who haven’t seen their dream of riches fulfilled. With “Armageddon time,” which takes place at a pivotal moment of America’s history, the director returns to his own origins through the prism of a semi-autobiographical account of his working-class childhood in Queens. “Armageddon,” which is competing for the Palme D’Or, is personal film, and maybe since talking about yourself can be difficult “Armageddon” isn’t the strongest.

Paul Graff (young Banks Repeta, a wonderful discovery) is an aspiring artist in the sixth grade who gets into trouble for drawing his teacher’s portrait during class, other shenanigans follow. And there’s Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a black kid who is clearly a target of the same teacher, clearly because of the color of his skin. A friendship between the two begins.

But there is an innocence in Paul and in Johnny, in the budding friendship between them. Until shenanigans ensue and they’re not really all that innocent anymore.

In the eighties there was Reaganism, the root of, if not all, then much of, today’s evil, as we’re seeing the damages neo-liberalism has brought upon the U.S., the West in general. In one scene, on the family TV there’s a news report about Tchernobyl, just after it happened, and I couldn’t help but figuratively shudder at hearing the news reporter saying, “so far one casualty has been reported.” Was there any innocence left then, still, in the world? Armageddon, indeed.

While it is almost always a pleasure to watch a film by a master filmmaker, “Armageddon” struck me for being a little inconsequential. There’s something spellbinding about young Paul, he’s torn between being a friend to Johnny and toeing the line with his parents, his father, especially, a despot and an adept of corporal punishment. And the complicity between Paul and his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) is pleasurable to watch, it’s a time-honored tradition, grandpapa being more tolerant of his grand-kid than the parents but to a point. Turns out he can also work against the kid, or at least be perceived to do so.

It’s hard to watch “Armageddon Time” without thinking of Alvy Singer in “Annie Hall.” The kid keeps going on about how the universe is expanding. It’s funny, but there’s also something desperate hiding behind it, an urgency. If he carries the weight of the world, does that make Alvy Singer more substantial than Paul Graff, who seems mostly interested in hanging out with his friend and getting into trouble? G.K. Chesterton said it best: “the very splendour of youth is the sense that it has all the space to stretch its legs in.”

But, of course, it matters little that Gray isn’t Alvy Singer. “Armageddon Time” was a pleasure to watch.

Anthony Hopkins and Banks Repeta in “Armageddon Time”