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Armageddon Time casts Anne Hathaway, Anthony Hopkins and Jeremy Strong as director James Gray’s real-life Jewish immigrant family

Graffiti on the subways, early hip hop on the radio, Reagan on the campaign trail: the new film from New York-born writer-director James Gray (Ad Astra; The Immigrant) unfolds at a transitional moment in American popular culture, catching a nation at the dawn of a decade where exciting new art forms emerged against fraught promises of economic prosperity and the threat of global apocalypse.

Gray has long threaded elements of his Russian Jewish family experience through his films, but Armageddon Time – its title pulling double duty as a play on The Clash song and the 40th president's predilection for doomsaying – is the 53-year-old filmmaker's most autobiographical work to date, a coming-of-age tale centred around the exploits of a pre-teen dreamer on the streets of New York in 1980.

The filmmaker's avatar is Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a 12-year-old redhead from a lovingly noisy home in suburban Queens, where his hardworking, middle-class parents – home economics teacher Esther (Anne Hathaway) and plumber Irving (Succession's Jeremy Strong) – are a source of domestic friction, and his elderly grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) is something of a mischievous, tale-spinning confidante.

Paul is a talented artist, which doesn't do him any favours at his Queens public school, where his comical sketches of uptight sixth-grade teacher Mr Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk) land him in detention. It's here that he bonds with Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), a Black student from a less fortunate background who shares Paul's taste for cheerful disruption.

The easy camaraderie between Paul and Johnny is the soul of the film, as the two friends – wonderfully played by Repeta and Webb – bond over a shared love of space exploration (Johnny aspires to work for NASA), groove to Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight, and giggle while smoking a joint in the school bathroom stalls.

The latter incident gets Paul dispatched to his older brother's private school, where obnoxiously preppy, all-white Republican spawn are in abundance, and the opening assembly is welcomed by a power-suited speech from then-Assistant US Attorney Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain) – an episode drawn directly from Gray's own experience (Trump visited Gray's school).

Gray's eighth feature film marks a return to form for the director, after two uneasy forays into bigger worlds with 2016's period jungle adventure The Lost City of Z and 2019's space-dad epic Ad Astra – movies whose genre canvases didn't always gel with the filmmaker's brand of emotional sincerity.

The new film's success reflects the tender, lived-in worlds of Gray's earlier We Own the Night, The Yards and Two Lovers, whose nuanced, New York immigrant experience has always been the writer-director's specialty.

Armageddon Time is a classic coming-of-age film, setting the forging of a personal identity against the social and political climate of the era – the emergence of both a young artist and a nation crawling uneasily out of a turbulent 70s into a dubious "morning in America".

At times, Gray's screenplay can map the sociopolitical element a little too neatly – Johnny's seemingly dead-end trajectory, on the lam from social care workers, sketches a familiar analogy for America's race issues – but these moments are imbued with a deep sense of the personal, of details and emotions that can only be drawn from the filmmaker's lived experience.

Bathed in the warm, autumnal hues of Darius Khondji's cinematography – an evocation of memory that never tips into fraudulent nostalgia – Armageddon Time captures the complexity of a kid's perspective refracted through time and distance, where adults are both loving and monstrous, larger-than-life and fallible.

Bolstered by expert supporting performances from Hathaway and Strong, the film offers us a portrait of parents whose contradictions only enhance our empathy toward them – despite their flaws, their abusiveness and violence, which are products of the culture they've been raised in, they're trying to make a better life for their kids, the only way they know how.

It's a fascinating depiction of ostensibly liberal, progressive parents who nonetheless carry traces of systemically inherited – of American – racism, which the film holds in contrast to grandpa, a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant whose life experiences have forged a deep, unshakable empathy for outsiders. (It's a credit to Hopkins, and his presence as an actor, that he can convey all of this so effortlessly, and largely through irascible, comedic banter.)

Armageddon Time's sense of foreboding spikes its coming-of-age glow with a bitterness that's hard to shake. For some, circumstances of class and race meant that things would turn out OK, whatever the missteps; for others – especially young Black men in Reagan's America – the future would be far less welcoming, even as their culture became assimilated into the mainstream. (Even the film's title card – rendered in the hip hop tag typeface that would become shorthand for urban cool in the years that followed – could be seen to acknowledge Gray's own complicity.)

The soon-to-be-president-elect appears early on in a televised interview, his presence – and the new American conservatism it would usher in – looming like a gathering cloud over the film's cultural melting pot.

"We might be the generation that sees armageddon," Reagan declares, a line that was – shockingly – addressed at what he saw as the threat of homosexuality, rather than an example of the Cold War fearmongering he otherwise seemed to enjoy.

Paul's dad's reply, directed at the television set, is to the point: "What a schmuck."

Armageddon Time is in cinemas now.

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