Written and Directed by James Gray | 114 min | ▲▲▲▲△
Last year we had Belfast, and coming soon are two more large-scale autobiographical movies from prominent filmmakers: Empire Of Light from Sam Mendes, and The Fabelmans from Steven Spielberg. A more intimate, perhaps more personal reminiscence is out now from filmmaker James Gray (Ad Astra, The Lost City of Z). It’s also maybe the best of the bunch.
It’s the kind of story we’re far more used to seeing serialized on TV these days — a familiar, unflashy coming-of-age tale with something to say about America, which makes its appearance in the cinema more remarkable. It could stand to be compared with both the series work of David Simon and the family dramas of Barry Levinson.
It’s September 1980 in Queens New York. We’re going to spend a couple months getting to know Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), who’s going into Grade Six at his public school. He’s a creative kid who likes to draw and dream and maybe mouth off a bit to his parents. He’s tight with his grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), and gets along well enough with his mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway). His relationship with his appliance repairman father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), is more fraught, as it is with older brother, Ted (Ryan Sell), but for the most part they’re a loving Jewish American family.
Paul makes a new friend in school, Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), who is Black. Johnny is being raised by his frail grandmother, and doesn’t have the same advantages Paul has, but they still get on well. Johnny is fascinated by the NASA space program, with a full set of collectable cards. Paul and Johnny ditch a field trip into the city one day and push their luck hanging out at an arcade and riding the subway. Their homeroom teacher, Mr Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), doesn’t much like Johnny. As one of few Black kids in school, you get the sense that Johnny is used to getting a raw deal from the white folks in charge.
Paul hears from his grandfather how badly Jews were treated in the old days, and encourages Paul to stand up for others who don’t have the same privilege, this while Paul’s parents want to move Paul into the prep school his brother goes to, where he has to wear a uniform. That school, interestingly, is funded with the help of the Trump family.
All of this is told against the backdrop of the Ronald Reagan campaign for President — the film ends around Election Day, 1980.
Though it’s a bit slow going at first, the parallel narratives here are both compelling.
On one hand you’ve got this growing Conservative movement in America, this feeling of partisanship, where the message is you have to stick with your own people to get anywhere in life and take whatever advantage you can get your hands on. And then, in micro, you’ve got these two kids — and the performances from the young actors are stellar — in the middle of learning hard lessons from the adults around them about life’s cruelties.
A tip of the hat to Hathaway for what she accomplishes with her understated role, and to the single scene cameo from Jessica Chastain, making this an Interstellar reunion.
This is as straightforward and uncomplicated as it is moving, an American story as well-told as Gray’s 2013 drama, The Immigrant. It’s anything but grand, but it’s beautiful in its simplicity.