DRAMA; 1hr 54min
STARRING: Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb
Breakaways: from left, Webb and Banks Repeta
Nostalgia buffs, take note: if Queens sixth-grader Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is any yardstick, not only was primary school no more fun in 1980 than it presumably is today, but family life was no cakewalk, either. Younger son Paul’s first day back at school is a paradox of the busy and the unproductive. After alienating his martinettish teacher (Andrew Polk) with a caricature, he stirs the pot at home by turning his nose up at a dinner cooked by his mother, Esther (Hathaway, a jarring sight in a frump wig).
That paradox will become a through line. Paul dreams of becoming a rich and famous artist, which doesn’t prevent him, kids being kids, from risking the wrath of his hotheaded father, Irving (Succession ’s Strong, all grown up), by ducking out of a class trip to the Guggenheim Museum to play pinball with his new, socially inappropriate friend, Johnny Davis (Webb). Paul’s affectionate, opinionated Jewish family is middle-class (Hopkins is Mr Congeniality as his indulgent grandad). Johnny, who is black and touchy, lives with his frail grandmother in poverty and is “tired of taking shit from everybody.”
Their friendship can’t help but reflect this disparity: while one boy swims out of his depth, the other has too much to prove. Hauled out of his public school and into a private, temptation-free, lily-white alternative by his parents, Paul must tackle another shark tank to which Johnny will never have access.
Ad Astra writer-director James Gray’s window into Paul’s awakening leans heavily on Banks Repeta’s limpid eyes and melting smile, which are both fully there for it. Drawn from Gray’s life, his screenplay is a navel gaze that is catnip for actorly highlights but makes scattershot viewing, its scenes strung like beads on a wandering thread. Whether their vignettes sustain a story whose moral — stop the presses! — is that life is unfair is another existential question.