Queens, 1980. The way James Gray tells it in this bustling, tobacco-hued autobiographical drama, it’s an in-between world, on the brink of the cultural explosion of hip-hop and the political paradigm shift heralded by Reaganism. But it’s also rooted further in the past and in the Jewish family history of Gray’s alter ego in the picture, sixth-grader Paul Graff (impressive newcomer Banks Repeta).
Paul is flirting with the notion of teen rebellion – he triggers a family argument with his unilateral decision to order Chinese food rather than to tackle his mother’s baked fish (“It’s called scrod,” says his mother, swilling the word around her mouth like something she would prefer to spit out). At school he bonds with Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a Black kid who delivers the kind of scorched-earth comebacks to teachers that make the other children gasp with delighted horror. Paul wants to be an artist; Johnny would like to work for Nasa. And for a while, both ambitions seem achievable.
The family scenes, all jostling banter and suffocating love, are terrific. Anne Hathaway is a frazzled mother whose status on the school PTA is not quite the power-play Paul believes it to be; Anthony Hopkins dispatches twinkly wisdom as a much-loved grandpa; Jeremy Strong is the disciplinarian dad with a whiplash temper. Preteen drama is amplified by robust and fairly obvious musical choices, but more interesting is the sound design: the city is everywhere, grumbling and fractious, the sound of a short fuse burning out. A brief, felted moment of silence allows Hopkins’s potent final line to land like a punch.