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Fine cast at odds with plot in ‘Armageddon Time’

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If Steven Spielberg can make an autobiographical, coming-of-age film (“The Fabelmans”) at age 75, I guess it’s OK for James Gray, 53, to make one. “Armageddon Time,” which takes its title from a reggae song covered by the Clash in 1979, is a strange title for a film about a mixed-up but talented kid in 1980s Queens from a struggling, middle-class Jewish family. Paul Graff (Banks Repeta, “Black Phone”) is a student in a 6th grade class full of ethnically and racially mixed students. One of them, a Black student named Johnny Crocker (Jaylin Webb, TV’s “The Wonder Years”), is notably bigger than his classmates. Johnny, who has been held back one year, and the teacher Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk) are often at loggerheads. On a class trip to the Guggenheim Museum on the Upper East Side, Paul and Johnny bond, breaking away from the group and exploring the city. At the Guggenheim, Paul is introduced to the abstract work of Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky.

Paul, who draws well and is often at odds with his hard-working father Irving (Jeremy Strong of TV’s “Succession”), wants to be an artist when he grows up. His more practical father wants him to have a back-up plan. Paul’s friend Johnny has a collection of NASA patches and dreams of being an astronaut. Paul has a strong connection with his elderly grandpa Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins), a Jew who came America from Ukraine. Paul plans to launch a small rocket with his grandpa in Flushing Meadows.

Johnny and Paul have completely different lives. Johnny lives with his sick grandmother, who suffers from dementia. Like the young Woody Allen, Paul is surrounded by Jewish relatives, including an older brother (Ryan Sell) and his loving mother Esther Graff (Anne Hathaway), who is the head of the P.T.A., his grandmother Mickey (Tovah Feldshuh) and others. At one point in the story, after being caught smoking a joint with Johnny, Paul is sent to a private school, where he must wear a uniform and where his classmates include the children of Donald Trump, one of whom uses a racial slur in reference to Johnny. In these scenes, Jessica Chastain appears briefly as the attorney Maryanne Trump She delivers an odd speech from someone so privileged about how she had to fight to get where she is. Really?

Gray’s career has had its ups and downs. He has ardent supporters (I have wavered). His previous efforts run the gamut from crime drama (“The Yards,” “We Own the Night”) to science-fiction (“Ad Astra”) and a British period adventure film (“The Lost City of Z”). “Armageddon Time” has a fine cast. But I did not buy Welshman Hopkins as a Ukrainian Jew in spite of the twinkle. The story meanders, rather than leading to a dramatically notable conclusion. At one point, Johnny takes to the streets to avoid being put into the foster care system and sleeps in a clubhouse Paul’s father built for Paul in their yard. Johnny wants Paul to go with him to a concert by the pioneering rap group the Sugarhill Gang. Ronald Reagan gets elected. The Graffs are appalled.

The visuals by Gray veteran Darius Khondji are murky to the point of distraction. Is there no sun in Queens? Johnny dreams of moving to Florida (maybe he wants more light, too) and getting a job with NASA. Paul, who struck me as a bit irrational, cooks up a scheme to raise the money for them to get there. In the sequence involving the racial slur, Paul denies knowing Johnny, not unlike Peter denying Christ. This resonates at the end, regarding a sacrifice. But by then you also realize that “Armageddon Time” has missed its chance.

(“Armaeddon Time” contains profanity and drug use)

MOVIE REVIEW

“ARMAGEDDON TIME”

Rated R. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square and suburban theaters.

Grade: B-

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