This image is from the official trailer for “Armageddon Time,” distributed by Focus Features.

Coming off the ambitious but ineffective sci-fi drama “Ad Astra,” writer-director James Gray has come back to Earth to write what he knows. Inspired by Gray’s own childhood, “Armageddon Time” tells the story of Paul Graff (Banks Repeta, “The Black Phone”), an 11-year-old Jewish-American boy whose coming of age arrives at the precipice of the Reagan Revolution in the fall of 1980, bringing him face to face with issues of race, class and identity.

Though the film attempts to reckon with the era’s political climate, Reagan remains a peripheral figure. The film features members of the Trump family, drawing lines from Reagan-era American conservatism to that of the present day. Jessica Chastain (“The Good Nurse”) makes a cameo appearance as Trump’s older sister Maryanne. In her single, hilarious scene, Maryanne espouses the anti-welfare Reagan rhetoric that decries “handouts” to people in need. She tells the wealthy young students at Paul’s new private school that every one of them will be incredibly successful simply because they have worked hard, just like she did. Maryanne’s sincerity, combined with Chastain’s knowing delivery, makes the sequence incredibly funny as we watch her attempt to deny her immense privilege. Paul quickly learns what the audience already knows — this person’s values are all bullshit.

The film interrogates this privilege, most obviously in its handling of Paul’s relationship with Johnny (Jaylin Webb, “Till”), an African-American boy in Paul’s public school class. Despite Webb’s solid performance, Johnny is used as an avenue for Paul to learn about the racist communities in which he grows up. Johnny is passive, making no decisions independent of Paul, which leaves his character too shallow for the film to discuss racial inequality or injustice in a meaningful way. While Paul and Johnny’s friendship should be the film’s emotional core, “Armageddon Time” is far more comfortable dealing with the relationship between Paul and his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins, “The Father”). It’s this relationship that helps Paul understand the hatred emanating from the authority figures in his life.

It’s hard not to attribute most of the film’s shortcomings to the child’s perspective. While, at its heart, it is a story about a young boy losing his innocent view of the world, much of the film is oversimplified because Paul, at 11, only has a surface-level understanding of what’s happening to him, his family, Johnny and the world around him. This could be avoided if the film wasn’t so autobiographical, but because Gray pulls from his own memories, his story is relegated to only what he knew was happening around him at that age. The audience then comes away with merely a surface-level understanding of the intersecting issues of race, class, identity and privilege. 

The strong suit of “Armageddon Time” lies in its portrayal of the Graffs’ family dynamics. Gray treats each family member as a fully complex character in scenes that feel like clear, specific memories from Gray’s own life, bringing a realness to the characters that otherwise may not have been delivered. Gray doesn’t look back on his childhood in the Reagan era with nostalgia. Instead, we see the Graffs as hypocrites: self-righteous liberals who call Reagan a schmuck, then turn around and make racist comments when nobody is watching. At times, they are cruel and abusive. In a powerful scene, Paul’s father, Irving (Jeremy Strong, “Succession”), disciplines his son by beating him with a belt in the shower. Shot from Paul’s point of view, the framing captures Strong’s physical presence towering over the viewer and the raw fury of his performance creates a palpable terror in both Paul and the audience. At the same time, numerous scenes make clear Irving’s deep love and care for his son — like when he sticks his neck out for Paul at the end of the film, saving his son from trouble with the law through a mutual connection he shares with a police officer. This moral grayness creates a more nuanced, realistic portrait of a family than a purely nostalgic look at the filmmaker’s childhood might. It’s the most effective way to show Paul come to terms with growing up and having to face the real-world issues that he will encounter for the rest of his life.

Gray comes from a personal place with “Armageddon Time,” and the experiential nature of its story is both its most potent weapon and its biggest drawback. Anything regarding Gray’s own identity feels reflective and complex, but his handling of identities he does not share is one-note. There’s a lot of fascinating thematic potential in this film, but its very nature prevents it from achieving it.

Film Beat Editor Mitchel Green can be reached at mitchgr@umich.edu.