Inspired by his own New York upbringing, director James Gray returns to the 1980s to explore the trials of Paul Graff (Michael Banks Repeta), a sixth grader at PS 173 in Queens, New York.
Gray goes to great lengths to achieve period authenticity as he tries to deal with a big subject while telling a small story.
The big subject: White privilege. Paul bypasses trouble with the police, something a Black friend (Jaylin Webb) can’t do. The small story: Almost everything else in the movie.
The movie works best when Gray keeps things episodic and loose. Early on, he establishes the environment at PS 173. Paul's teacher (Andrew Polk) conducts his class in an authoritarian fashion that none of his pupils seems to take seriously, including Paul who draws a caricature of him.
Paul is drawn to Johnny, a Black kid who's repeating the sixth grade. Johnny intuitively understands that the system doesn't favor him. He makes no attempt to conceal his contempt for it. He wants to work for NASA but finds no encouragement for his dream.
Gray creates a working-class Jewish milieu that isn't often seen in popular entertainment. Paul's home is a scene of fractious exchanges, overheard conversations, empty bromides, worry, and casually expressed racism.
Anne Hathaway has a nice turn as Paul's mother, who also happens to be the head of the PTA. A tightly wound Jeremy Strong plays Paul's dad, a plumber with a bad temper and little interest in his son's lofty ambitions: The kid wants to be an artist.
Paul's older brother (Ryan Sell) tries to torment his younger sibling.
The movie delivers a message of encouragement through Paul's grandfather (Anthony Hopkins), who provides the movie's moral and emotional center. One must be a mensch, which in this case means speaking out against injustice.
Grandpa understands Paul in a way his parents can't. He gives him a toy rocket, which the two fly together He also provides the boy with a set of oil paints, thus endorsing Paul's arty ambitions.
Gray unspools the rest of the family dynamics throughout. Paul's grandmother (Tovah Feldshuh) fled Ukraine, met grandpa in England, and traveled with him to the US, escaping the pogroms and antisemitism that plagued much of Eastern European Jewry.
The big shift in Paul's young life happens when he and Johnny are caught smoking a joint in the school bathroom. Paul's outraged parents decide to enroll him in the same private school his brother attends. Paul is forbidden to see Johnny again. Grandpa picks up the tab for the new school.
As it turns out, the school is a favored institution of Fred Trump (John Diehl), father of … well … you know who. Trump's daughter Maryanne (Jessica Chastain), a US judge, speaks to a school assembly, serving up an easy irony: A person raised rich tells kids what it takes to succeed.
Fed up with his home life, Paul convinces Johnny to help steal a computer from his new school so that the two can sell it and flee to Florida, a pipe dream that brings both boys into contact with the police, something that probably will ruin Johnny's already threatened future.
Paul learns that it’s possible to encounter bigotry for being Jewish while also benefiting from societal assumptions about being white. Johnny gets no such benefit of the doubt and presumably never will.
In one of the movie's softer exchanges, Dad explains how he got his son off the hook with the cops. He acknowledges that Johnny will be treated unfairly. Life is unfair. That’s it. Move on with your life.
We don't know how Paul will internalize this message and what it will mean for his life going forward. Perhaps Gray wants us to speculate but a few hints might have been helpful.
Gray overreaches by trying to tie Paul's woes to a major shift in the country, which is about to enter the Regan years, a rightward triumph that helps push the door open for today’s roiled climate.
Those familiar with Gray's work (Ad Astra, The Lost City of Z, Two Lovers, We Own the Night, and The Immigrant) won't be surprised to learn that the director avoids nostalgic indulgence, opting instead to allow rough edges to show.
Gray bravely tackles the inadequacies and limitations of his characters but the resultant film also feels somewhat limited, a narrow gauged personal tale. Rough edges don't always add up to a larger truth.
Oddly, I found myself more interested in Paul’s emotionally stunted father than in either of his sons. Strong’s character seemed a more intriguing embodiment of the painful contradictions Gray lays out than anything we learn about one more kid who aspires to be an artist.
And Johnny's story? That could be a whole other film.