JoJo Rabbit (2019)

Directed by Taika Waititi

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Taika Waititi’s movies have such an appealing innocence.  His characters, often children, learn perhaps obvious but nevertheless valuable lessons, as is the case with most coming of age films, and I think his young, bold protagonists highlight something similar within all of us, albeit a confidence that has been battered and bruised years into adulthood.

So there is a purity of spirit then, even though his characters are often playing at a game they don’t fully understand.  By the end they will lose some of their more performative qualities and instead just sort of grow into a more authentic version of themselves.

Never is this more clear than in a film like Jojo Rabbit, about a young boy, Jojo, who is a member of the Hitler Youth in the waning days of World War II.  He is gung-ho in spirit, a Nazi, and his best friend is the führer.

In all coming of age films, it seems, a young character learns a valuable lesson that involves some degree of betrayal.  Maybe a love interest spurns them or a father figure lets them down, but they deal with some kind of disappointment from which they ultimately rebound.  It’s in that resilience that they learn something about what it means to be an adult or really just a human.

So going into Jojo Rabbit we see very clearly all the things that will have to be learned and unlearned by the end of the film.  This being a Taika Waititi film you can expect some kind of feel good ending, and this being a period piece you probably know that the Nazis didn’t win.

When Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) learns that his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), has been hiding a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), his first thought is to turn her in.  She points out, however, that he and his mother could be implicated and so thanks to their little stalemate they have a secret to keep.

Jojo will predictably spend plenty of time with Elsa and slowly grow fond of her, crumbling many of his militant, patriotic beliefs.  His best friend, an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler (Waititi himself) voices all the concerns of Jojo the little Nazi, before Jojo must confront the disappointed führer and in the process grow up.

Now despite the absurd premise, so much of this film plays out like you expect, like any other coming of age film.  But it’s so sweet, often hilarious, and there are even moments that could be a bit emotionally manipulative but which I fell hard for.  It’s a wholesome movie with engaging characters, just about all of ’em, and I guess I think it’s just the best feel good movie of the year.

It’s also quite splendid in terms of the cinematography and production design.  It’s a true war movie, with no cost-cutting in regards to the scenes of battle which invade Jojo’s small town.  Bomb explode, both for laughs and for dramatic effect, and certain moments feel pulled from any other notable war film, be it Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers.

There was one scene, in fact, in which Jojo stumbles through the deafening explosions that nearly kill him, and yet the couple in the seats next to me were cackling with laughter, and it was an appropriate response to all this.

It’s bewildering, that a moment could be so dramatic, so hilarious and yet so moving.  But I think I felt all those things at once, like the chemicals in my brain were all firing at once.  It’s an orchestra of confounding emotion in the best possible way.

So I loved this movie.  In some ways it feels like a kids movie, despite being about the Nazis and despite having a couple truly gut-wrenching moments (in my humblest of opinions).

What kind of kills me is that I have a sinking feeling that this will be one of the more picked apart movies this Oscars awards season.  It just feels like the kind of movie that will please a certain segment of the audience and infuriate others who demand more of it, whether it’s something more satirical, cutting or damning.

But that’s not Waititi, at least as I understand it.  His films are playful, joyful, funny and endearing.  They all feel like playgrounds, an environment you can run around in and pump out some of that dopamine.  There is a spirit to all of his films, from his Oscar-winning short Two Cars, One Night (2004) to his entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok to this period piece comedy/drama/coming of age film.

In short, it’s sweet and funny, and I felt good walking out of the theater.

Up Next: Tell Me Who I Am (2019), Runaway Train (1985), The Castle (1997)

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