The title of "Armageddon Time" is written in a font that suggests vintage graffiti, an early clue the movie will be about a rebel and will be set around 1980.
The rebel in question is sixth-grader Paul, growing up in Queens with a doting grandfather (Anthony Hopkins), frustrated mother (Anne Hathaway, lowering her voice an octave) and violent, overlooked father (Jeremy Strong). Paul's brother is discovering post-punk music at about the same time Paul is listening to Grandmaster Flash and becoming friends with a classmate named Johnny. Picked on by teachers, Johnny shows Paul that not everyone has the same opportunities he does.
Most of the time, "Armageddon Time" feels like it could have been made by brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne ("Two Days, One Night"). It's a decisive-moment movie — an encounter with the police teaches Paul about the sort of person he is and would like to be — and it doesn't seem to have an agenda, other than recording events that helped shape Paul (and writer/director James Gray, who based the drama on childhood experiences). For instance, Paul's fear of his father's violence is a major factor in some scenes but it doesn't lead to any sort of reckoning for either Paul or his dad. It's just part of the texture of the story, the way lots of things happen to us without adding up to much.
Perhaps because he knows audiences can get frustrated by slice-of-life storytelling, Gray builds the movie around the dramatic police encounter, which feels raw and believable, and around brushes with members of Donald Trump's family, which do not. The brushes are real, Gray has said, and they provide the film with a ray of hope toward the end of an otherwise bleak tale. But both Trump's sister (Jessica Chastain) and father come off as weirdo villains in a movie that is otherwise reluctant to judge the behavior of its flawed characters.
Everyone else gets shades of gray. The most fascinating character is the grandfather. Endlessly patient and kind with Paul, he seems almost saintly until cracks in his family's liberal views begin to emerge. Paul's anti-racist mom expresses fears about her son's Black friend and his fair-minded dad administers brutal punishments while his grandfather, a former public schoolteacher and Holocaust escapee, turns out to be the one behind Paul switching to the academy attended by — and funded by — the privileged Trumps.
"Armageddon Time" is about a kid figuring out right and wrong, and how complicated that gets when ideals bump up against the real world. It's a subtle movie, and Gray has cast it beautifully, including another great, valedictory performance by Hopkins. His character is the conscience of his family and of the movie, but the actor reveals he is haunted by his awareness that he has not always managed to do the right thing.
*** out of 4 stars
Rated: R for language, violence and drug use.
Where: In theaters Friday.