Directed by Taika Waititi
Wes Anderson has made a living making films through the lens of a child. Some are more successful than others, but this view is always slightly skewed…as if an adult were interpreting child-like wonder. Taika Waititi, whose film “JoJo Rabbit” has been compared by pretty much everyone to Anderson, chooses a different way of looking through that lens. His is via the pure, joyful, innocent, disappointed and malleable pieces of a child’s psyche…all while avoiding the trap of making a children’s film. No, this is grown up stuff, juxtaposed as it is by a Berlin that existed in the weeks before the end of the war. Our main character’s joyful exuberance is directed at something which has only ever caused us to recoil – not just cinematically, but in all ways. Talk about a risk. Does it pay off? Absolutely. Hilarious, touching, and heartbreaking, all while never once painting a picture of Nazi ideology or action as anything other than cruel and ridiculous, it matches “Booksmart” for title of most successful comedy of the year – and might be one of the most empathetic films of a much longer time frame.
Waititi’s brilliant script (based on the novel by Christine Leunens) is a master class in the subtle ways empathy affects a child. And how it affects an audience. Impossible to remove us as characters in this unfolding story, Waititi demands we find the joy in the single life of a child..and without our complicit engagement, the film would fall apart…and fast. To achieve this, Waititi attempts to set us at ease via a terrific device that immediately lets us know we are not forgiving the world of the boy, but rooting for the boy stuck in the world. And the journey of this boy (played with a perfect kind of innocence by Roman Griffin Davis)…the kind of journey that has the same mile-markers as most any boy…includes an earnest desire for acceptance by the “cool” kids, the frustration that comes with sometimes being left out, individuation from a parent, and how compassion does or doesn’t worm its way in to a child’s sphere of understanding. Yet it never remotely wanders in to the path of the saccharin, nor does it ever lessen our predisposed, deep-seated hatred for all things within Nazi culture.
This is in large part due to the yeoman acting work of Waititi, himself. Imaginary friends are usually the domain of Disney or Pixar. But Waititi’s persona is spot on…mirroring how we view his character in lock step with how our protagonist changes. In other words if we root for him at all, it is only in response to our boy’s imaginings. Like all the adults in the film, Scarlett Johansson is a representation…an important one, both in relation to the boy and in terms of plot and feeling…and she is terrific. Stephen Merchant seems to be the only adult who can play both the humor of situation while instilling the horror of his actual place in this world. Sam Rockwell tries a bit too hard when he didn’t need to. His part is written better than that. And I have no idea why Rebel Wilson is in the film. Utterly unnecessary.
But the BEST performances come from the kids. Thomasin McKenzie is perfect in the most important role of the film (outside of the boy). And let’s give a comedy award to Archie Yates (the best friend). He’s absolutely brilliant…and it’s his first role. And, of course, Davis. Usually child actors who play protagonist suffer from a kind of awareness of the adult world around them…and I mean that literally…the world of the movie set and one’s place in a film’s actor hierarchy. Not so, Davis. He plays his role with affection and appreciation for both what it means to grow up…and what it means to grow up in the Berlin of 1945.
Equally important to the film’s success are its production elements. This is a new version of Nazi Berlin. There is color…light and bright pastels, not the usual grim darkness we see in most every other film. Mihai Malaimare Jr. cinematography manages this dichotomy quite well…danger always feels right around the corner…in fact, it often is…yet its tones are as real as real can be. Mayes C. Rubeo’s costumes are evocative and of their time and place, as are all the elements of Ra Vincent’s production design. Finally, Michael Giacchino’s score works very well in the context of the film, but is fairly redundant…certainly if listened to on its own.
“JoJo Rabbit” is one of my favorite films this year…and might even make it in to my list of best films of the decade, if for no other reason than the audacity of its attempt. But there are other reasons…lots of them. Not the least of which is the vision of the man who made it.
(No trailer…gives away far too much…best to go in blind)