“How do you know you can trust someone?”
As a silly, sorrowful, satirical look at Nazi Germany through the lens of a radicalized Hitler Youth, Jojo Rabbit is the type of film you can’t really help but admire. It’s a tightrope act of a movie, and there are just so many spots along the walk where it could have expectedly fallen to its death. But this is a careful story about the preservation of and the passing of hope from one generation to the next, as well as a tale about making love instead of war. Jojo Rabbit stumbles a bit here and there, but what a daring path it courageously takes. To say that it sticks the landing is an understatement.
Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis, such a talented young newcomer) is not yet into his teens yet feels as if he should be the man of the house. His father, accused of being a deserter, is off at war with little hope of a homecoming. Meanwhile his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) keeps busy by quietly fighting back against the regime. Ever the blind fanatic to the wiedly powers of racism and fascism, the impressionable Jojo walks and talks and salutes alongside his imaginary friend with a toothbrush mustache named Adolf (Taika Waititi). Yep, you read that right. And somehow it works. Waititi hams it up and draws a bit too much attention to himself for my liking, but that’s the overall point of this caricature. He’s meant to be a cartoon. Kids love those.
Personally, I found that the picture hits its stride during the second act, especially as it digs deeper into its exploration of how hate is easy and love is hard. The movie takes risks here too, infusing elements often associated with the horror and romance genres, all while remaining faithful to its dramatic war backdrop. The light and the dark of those genres are both embodied by Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish teen invited by Rosie to hide in the walls of her late daughter’s empty room. Elsa terrifies Jojo, but she also tells him, as does his mother on separate occassions, about the wondrous feelings of true love. I wasn’t very drawn into the structure of Jojo’s relationship with Elsa, with him attempting to write an exposé on Jews to gain the favor of the Führer, but the story here matters more than the framing device. Just because you put a Picasso inside a bargain bin frame doesn’t mean it’s no longer a Picasso.
Jojo Rabbit really has little concern for the time period’s politics of greed and hate. It is, however, a film with a very specific lens, and once you see it for what it is (a fantastical account of a boy grappling with a devil masquerading as a man on one shoulder and a saintly mother on the other), you realize that the film – oftentimes laugh out loud funny – never sets out to make a mockery of the Holocaust. Jojo Rabbit uses and skews history to shed light on current darkness with fits of lightness and laughter that work both then and now, and in that regard the picture is a careful marriage of tone and style. It’s not a perfect movie – some aspects, especially those involving Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) lack enough depth – but I’m not sure something this ambitious could be perfect either. The blemishes don’t make it any less poignant.
There’s something about Taika Waititi’s work that has, up until now, reminded me of Wes Anderson’s filmography, of whom I am not a fan. They’re both intentionally cheeky, iconoclastic filmmakers with a penchant for rebelling against the norm. And yet I find that Anderson’s movies, while beautiful to behold, tend to feel devoid of soul, relying on quirks and rich production design to sell the story. I felt the same way the first time I watched Jojo Rabbit. But when you really sit with the picture, making the effort to see it with the mixed-up gaze of childlike wonder and the honest confusion that comes with grief and growing up, its purpose become quite clear. Jojo Rabbit seems to blend the imagination of Roberto Benigni’s The Tiger and the Snow with the WWII setting of his powerful and clownish Oscar winner Life is Beautiful. And even with those comparisons, Waititi’s latest is its own entity. I wish more modern movies were this bold. It could not have ended on a better note.
“Dancing’s for people who are free.”
Rating: 4 out of 5