Queens, New York, 1980: on Paul Graff’s first day of sixth grade he gets in trouble for drawing a caricature of the teacher and makes friends with fellow screwup Johnny, a Black kid who’s been held back and is a frequent target of the teacher’s abuse. The two boys bond over their outcast status. Johnny wants to be an astronaut, while Paul dreams of becoming a famous artist. Alarmed at his acting out and afraid he’ll fall behind, Paul’s American Jewish family makes him transfer to a private school where Maryanne Trump and her father, Fred, are guiding lights. Johnny has no such alternative option and instead goes truant, sometimes hiding out in Paul’s backyard clubhouse to evade authorities.
Reportedly based on director James Gray’s own childhood, the film traffics in broad-stroke ideas about racism, anti-Semitism, and class struggle. Lost in this After-School Special is a standout performance by Jeremy Strong as Paul’s low-status, frustrated father, who lashes out at his family with his words and fists but always feels like a disrespected laughingstock. Gray makes sure we know his people had the “right” politics by having them mock Reagan not once but twice when he appears on their TV set. But just like having members of the Trump family hover over the evil private school, this feels like stacking the deck. It’s not profound to say that Reagan’s America led to Trump’s or that Black people get a raw deal in both; these are truisms that don’t make for a compelling narrative. It’s not for nothing that early on Paul shows his beloved grandfather (a bafflingly miscast Anthony Hopkins) a drawing of a superhero he made up. His coming of age feels more like something out of the Marvel Universe than the childhood of a real living boy. R, 115 min.