Coming-of-age stories are, collectively, a dime-a-dozen. We’ve seen them in the afternoon specials, cinema, and stage. As an audience, we have a fixation with exploring themes of the past and their influences on us as children through, often, rose-colored glasses. James Gray’s Armageddon Time, expanding nationwide this weekend, turns the prototypical coming-of-age story on its head.

Armageddon Time plays as more than a coming-of-age tale. Gray approaches the material from his own vantage point. However, Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) doesn’t appear to be a pastiche of Gray. Reportedly, Gray wrote the story based on his upbringing in Queens. Newcomer Repeta makes the character his own, strengthening the surface against the 1980’s backdrop the film is set in.

Politics are a central consideration in the film, both in family and governance. Before we even are introduced to Paul’s family, the audience feels the weight of the challenges that confronted us at the start of that decade weighing down on us. Paul has a heavy burden to carry, and Gray imbues in the young character a carefree sense of imagination combined with an understanding of acceptance from the world around him. Repeta does not play the role loosely; there is still a sense of wonder as he gets lost in his own doodlings during class. When he befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), we start to see the protective barrier formed around Paul begin to crumble.

Gray understands the importance of the friendship between Paul and Johnny, both of whom struggle for different reasons. Repeta and Webb stand out, particularly from Gray’s direction, but also because, as actors, they have a sense of pride that carries through the performances. They understand the differences between wants and needs. A moment midway through the film, the friends silently confront one another through a wire fence in a schoolyard after having been caught smoking weed in a school bathroom. At this moment, they understand what is at stake, but neither has the wisdom to articulate why their friendship bonds are so vital then and to us, as an audience now.

As a Jewish American, Paul is protected through his parents’ efforts. Esther Graff, played with great aplomb by Anne Hathaway, wears the pants in the Graff family; Gray takes excellent strides to convey this fact, and Hathaway plays it to the hilt. Jeremy Strong plays Irving, Paul’s father, and Esther’s wife. Strong’s performance in Armageddon Time is one of his best, as he tries to be a good provider while being an opportunist. A family dinner scene early in the film demonstrates the family dynamic, its politics and the players’ influence on their politics, and the generational shift in beliefs that define who we are today. This is something that Gray conveys in spades.

Irving always looks over his shoulder, and Esther wants what’s best for her kids. It is Esther’s father, Aaron Rabinowitz, who has the experience and the wisdom to use that experience to guide Paul, where Esther is too wrapped up in Irving, and Irving is too wrapped up in his own efforts to protect the family. Anthony Hopkins plays Aaron and carries the same child-like wonderment and wisdom as Paul, but for different reasons. Hopkins and Repeta are sublime on the screen together as Aaron passes his knowledge on to Paul in a beautiful speech and the power that Paul now wields.

The third act is where we see Paul’s relationship with Johnny come alive, giving way to why Armageddon Time plays much better and far more influential than other coming-of-age stories. It takes time for its characters to develop, their dramas and dreams to unfold, and for the family shifts in thought.

To give credit where it is due, a friend posted their reaction to the film and mentioned that Armageddon Time is an anti-To Kill a Mockingbird story. I haven’t seen that film in quite a while, so I didn’t make the connection; however, they are correct in their assertion. Echoes of Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude and the anti-story thought came to mind. Gray sets his latest film apart by playing the characters and drama into a dejected state of thought within the family and political contexts. He turns those themes of respect into hope for a brighter future, standing in the face of the geopolitical themes the film sets out to portray, best expressed through Helen Keller: “We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world.”

The cast of Armageddon Time is to be commended for their work here. Gray (The Lost City of Z, Ad Astra) has demonstrated his commitment to character in the past. It could be easy to dismiss some of the more familiar elements as being of the after-school variety telemovie type. The contrasts of dejection turned into hopes and dreams are unmistakable.

Armageddon Time

Written and Directed by James Gray

Starring Banks Repeta, Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Anthony Hopkins, Jaylin Webb, Ryan Sell, Tovah Feldshuh, John Diehl, Jessica Chastain

R, 115 minutes, Focus Features