(director/writer: James Gray; cinematographer: Darius Khondji; editor: Scott Morris; music: Christopher Spelman; cast: Jessica Chastain (Maryanne Trump), Anne Hathaway (Esther Graff), Anthony Hopkins (Aaron Graff), Jeremy Strong (Irving Graff), Andrew Polk (Mr. Turkeltaub), Banks Repeta (Michael), Jaylin Webb (Johnny Davis), Tovah Feldshuh (Mickey Graff), John Diehl (Fred Trump), Ryan Sell (Ted), Jacob Mackinnon (Edgar Romanelli), Dane West (Topper); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Rodrigo Teixeira, Anthony Katagas, James Gray; Focus Features; 2022-USA/Brazil-in English)
“A poignant and thoughtful autobiographical drama, that plays out as a coming-of-age story.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A poignant and thoughtful autobiographical drama, that plays out as a coming-of-age story. It’s written and directed by James Gray (“Ad Astra”/”The Lost City of Z”) with earnestness. The film sets out to prove that the racist and xenophobic political insanity that has cursed the United States scene in the Trump era has its roots in Donald Trump’s home grounds of Queens. Gray should know, as he grew up in Queens, NY., and went to the private school Trump’s father was associated with.
We’re in 1980, at a time in which US presidential candidate Ronald Reagan said that the US was facing a moral “Armageddon.” It was also the time the Jewish Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is a sixth grader at PS 173 in Queens– who is Gray’s stand-in. His humorless and punitive teacher Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk) is unimpressed by his art skills (influenced by Kandinsky) or his attempts to be the class comedian. His rebellious attitude draws him to the impoverished Black dude Johnny (Jaylin Webb), who’s been held back a year and is a target for the teacher’s wrath.
Neither his nurturing and high-strung PTA president mom Esther Graff (Anne Hathaway), a home economics teacher also running for a seat on the district school board, or his volatile and punitive plumber father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), defend his defiant attitude to the teacher. And his bullying older brother Ted (Ryan Sell) is of no help. But fortunately Paul makes a connection with his big-hearted English grandpa Aaron (Hopkins), who buys him a model rocket kit and plans soon to take him to fly it at the 1964 World’s Fair site in Flushing.
Aaron however leaves for the hospital to undergo a major operation, but he leaves without telling Paul where he’s going-not wanting to worry him.
There are numerous boisterous family scenes, some with the family quarreling, some with them engaged with each other. All those scenes seem authentic and are dispensed without sentimentality.
In conversations with his grand-father Paul learns about his family history. He tells the boy of the courage of his grandmother Mickey (Tovah Feldshuh), whose Ukrainian parents were murdered in front of her by Cossacks, and how she escaped through Poland to reach England. There she met her future husband Aaron and at Ellis Island they entered this country as immigrants.
When Paul gets caught at school smoking a joint with Johnny, his folks take him out of the public school and put him in the same wealthy Forest Hills private school his brother attends. When Grandpa says he agrees with this decision, Paul accepts the punishment.
One of the Forest Hills school’s chief benefactors is Fred Trump (John Diehl), who grills the kid about the ethnic origins of the name Graff, sniffing out that he’s a Jew. The US judge Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain, doing a cameo), ironically addresses the school assembly on the importance of earning their success and not looking for handouts (this comes from a Trump family whose virtues include cheating and to get what they want will do anything they can).
In the private school,Paul’s liberal views are kept to himself as his rich classmates voice their beliefs in Reagan’s brand of conservatism, in white privilege and in class divide.
It tells us just enough of what the Trump world was like in Queens for us to see how racist the impeached president was as a child without him being in the picture.
It played in the Cannes competition, where it got a rousing reception.
REVIEWED ON 7/2/2022 GRADE: B+