The least sentimental coming of age film I’ve ever seen, James Gray’s (Ad Astra) autobiographical reflection of a middle-class Queens family at the advent of Reagan is evocative, unstinting and spare. Paul (Repeta Banks) is an artistic, unfocused, silly, and obnoxious sixth grader, doted on by his mother Esther (Anne Hathaway), cherished by his wise grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) and in terror of his father Irving (Jeremy Strong), who can be silly too, but who also sports a volcanic temper.
Paul is a dreamer. He falls in with rebellious black kid Johnny (Jaylin Webb) at the public-school they attend and soon, he is in with this wrong crowd of one. Paul’s rebellion runs smack dab into the instincts and hopes of his extended family, which include elderly immigrant grandparents and an uncle and an aunt.
This is a film about many things, but family is paramount. When Irving beats Paul for getting in trouble at school, the scene is disturbing, but when Paul mutters, “I hate you… [I] hate this family…”, Irving returns and in Strong’s face, registers that there is no greater calumny (I thought for a split second an already brutal strapping was going to escalate). The family is the vehicle for all success and support. They changed their distinct name of “Greizerstein” to “Graff,” and they want Paul out of public school, Esther being the last resistance. Per the aunt, “The class sizes are out of control, and the kids that they have coming in from the neighborhoods from all over. The Blacks, coming in…” eliciting a gasp and rebuke from Esther. These are, after all, traditional liberals (early on, Irving watches Reagan being interviewed, and comments “Sounds like a Class-A schmuck” and the film near-closes with the glum family watching Reagan’s victory and predicting nuclear war). But the facial response to Esther’s objection is a weary capitulation, an “it is what it is.”
They reminisce about their familial, generational struggles and focus on their shared goal of success. Sure, art is great, but an “artist”?
Paul’s behavior lands him in the private school attended by his older brother. The school’s most influential patron is none other than Fred Trump, and soon, Paul is in a new world. When Johnny visits, he is on the other side of the playground fence, as we see Paul awkwardly shying away from his former partner in crime.
Went I went to private Catholic school in ’78, I came with a crew of over a dozen boys from grade school, every one of them white, into a feeder for Catholic parishes all over D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Until that time, the black kids I knew were the children of diplomats, literally and figuratively, from another country. All of a sudden, there were a lot of black compatriots, kids probably just as scared as I was, but seemingly, not. And in those years, there was casual racism where I (and many others, I am sure) was Paul, keeping my head low, negotiating the moment with assuredly too much regard for my own skin, smirking an endorsement or pretending I didn’t hear. For every decent moment or objection, there were three of cowardice.
Gray does a wonderful job of depicting just how mundane and routinized these negotiations really are. As Irving tells Paul, “When you get older you can change the world. Right now, you just need to get past this and become a mensch. Your friend got the shaft, you feel bad. I understand that.” Modern dramatizations take such vignettes and make them seminal, even momentous. As Gray shows, they are more often than not pedestrian and disposable (“You just need to get past this”) or, in Gray’s most optimistic declaration, per Aaron:
GRANDPA AARON RABINOWITZ
It’s hard to fight. Isn’t it.
PAUL GRAFF (beat)
GRANDPA AARON RABINOWITZ
How do you think you did?
TEARS FORM in PAUL’S EYES. He starts to shake his head.
GRANDPA AARON RABINOWITZ (CONT’D)
You’ll have a lot more chances. And it will happen, again and again. It won’t be easy.
It’s hard to overstate Gray’s deftness and restraint (another reviewer nailed it with, “At its most muted, it leaves a respectful distance for the audience to think”). An example. In the hands of a lesser writer, Paul’s matriculation at the Trump school would have been an ordeal through and through. And it is not without its blots. The casually racist kid, the strictures, the cliques. But there is also attention to Paul, the kind that money brings, that every parent wants for their child, the kind where a troublesome kid isn’t immediately discarded as “slow” (the determination of Paul’s public-school principal). At public school, Paul’s “art” is doodling, dummy stuff. At his new private school, it is encouraged, even celebrated.
And the Trumps, in the form of Fred (John Diehl) and Maryanne (cameo by Jessica Chastain), could have been lampooned. In Gray’s hands, they are utilized. Both characters, in talks to the students, revere America in the vein of a zealot. As Fred Trump tells the kids, “Because we have a new president, a new beginning, a return to America’s rightful place in the world. I know speaking for myself personally I couldn’t have more hope than I do at this very moment in our future. So. When I look out, and I see all these beautiful, handsome kids, clean-cut… You’re ready to face the world–you’re being taught all the right things. And you’ll be the leaders. Leaders in business, finance, politics, all aiming to keep our country good and strong.”
Take the reference to “Class-A schmuck” Reagan out, and you can see Paul’s family nodding in reverential assent.
Similarly, Hopkins, as Paul’s soulmate, exhibits the lessons of his past, lovingly supporting Paul’s artistic ambitions while shocking Paul by admitting he was the key vote for the school change (“Because the game is rigged. And we have to do everything we can for you and your brother”).
The rigging of the game and the fate of Johnny coalesce to end the picture, and like everything that came before, there’s no easy lesson or dawning.
The performances are pitch perfect. As Irving, Strong is noteworthy, a man who doesn’t really have control of his house or the respect he thinks he should be afforded, alternating between explosion and understanding. The child actors are natural and Webb in particular evinces an affecting blend of the cynical, the world-weary, and the aspirational.
One of the best of the year.