The pallor of the face indicates tenderness, the large eyes stare in amazement, the hair falls in angelic curls on the forehead. So young Paul goes out into the world, in this case on the first day of sixth grade school in Queens, New York, in the fall of 1980. And the choice of lead actor, Banks Repeta, suggests that director James Gray in “Times of upheaval” wants to watch a particularly sensitive soul growing up, in the large and ever-growing genre of the coming-of-age film. The young soul he once was.
Paul lives with his Jewish family in the Flushing district, the memories of flight and the Holocaust are still present with his beloved grandfather (Anthony Hopkins). The father (Jeremy Strong) makes a living as a plumber, the mother (Anne Hathaway) is involved in the parents’ association, but fear still hangs heavy over the family dinner. Paul and his brother have to make it to college, the pressure of the American dream weighs on them, with Ronald Reagan’s election victory the new coldness of the winners is sweeping across the country. Being an innocent dreamer who likes to paint his fantasies with colored pencils can already be interpreted as a dangerous rebellion.
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All of this could quickly turn into uncomfortable self-adulation. After all, we all know that James Gray (he recently shot “Ad Astra” with Brad Pitt) really became an artist; that his crayons draw storyboards for acclaimed films today; and several millions on the account separate him from the worries of his parents. But this isn’t a film about being right when you’re young. It’s about how ridiculously close everything was, and also about another young dreamer who fell by the wayside.
This Johnny (Jaylin Webb) loves making harmless nonsense just as much as Paul, which is why the two end up at the front of the board on the first day of school. The difference is skin color – Johnny is the only black guy in the class. That’s why he’s punished harder than Paul, and that’s why it only gets really dangerous for him when he brings a joint to school without any drug experience. He and Paul are caught giggling with it in the toilet.
Donald Trump’s father lurks in the corridors of the private school
Paul’s family then decides that there are bad influences in the public school system. And even if the grandfather postulates very firmly that black people have to be defended against racism at all times, he sacrifices his savings so that Paul, like his brother, goes to a private school where there are no black students. This “Forest Manor Prep” school in the Forest Hills area of Queens is exactly the same as the “Kew Forest School” that James Gray actually went to. Like, years before him, a certain Donald Trump.
Now Paul wears a blue school blazer with a plate-sized gold crest and a tiger striped tie around his neck. And on day one, there’s a scene that Gray swears really happened. Old Trump, real estate tycoon Fred, then in his 70s, hangs around the halls as the school’s big financier, finds the newcomer, questions him and looks like an angry lizard when it comes up that Paul is Jewish.
Fortunately, Donald Trump, who was already applying for planning permission for Trump Tower in Manhattan at the time, does not appear, but his older sister Maryanne, also an alumnus of the school and currently a prosecutor in New Jersey, does. She gives a motivational speech for the kids, which of course is about not getting anything for free. Paul realizes how wrong it all is and wants to run away with Johnny, who now has no school or even a place to sleep. They steal one of the early school computers to raise money, but it all ends miserably at the police station.
The coincidence of an acquaintance in the neighborhood, thanks to which Paul gets away again – it then frightens both him and his father so much that they pull themselves together again. Johnny isn’t that lucky, and so the USA shows itself to be a tough country. Growing up here means facing realities that have lost none of their bitterness to this day. Anyone who does this as clear-sightedly and bitterly as James Gray does not fall into the trap of only celebrating his sensitive former self.
Armageddon Time, USA 2022 – Director and Script: James Gray. Camera: Darius Khondji. Starring Banks Repeta, Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Anthony Hopkins. Universal, 115 minutes. Theatrical release: 24.11.2022.