It’s no exaggeration to say that only Taika Waiti could have made this film. This is a film that is simultaneously hilarious, heartbreaking and scathing. Not to mention audacious. To have a film set during World War Two, about a member of Hitler Youth (Jojo, played by Roman Griffin Davis) is one thing. To have Waiti himself playing Jojo’s imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler, is another level. To have what occurs in this film, and how it all goes down – that’s another ball game entirely.
The film follows 10 year old Jojo, a junior Nazi so committed to the ideology he is being described as a ‘fanatic’. His world is shaken when he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding Elsa, a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. It doesn’t necessarily work as well as Hunt For The Wilderpeople or What We Do In The Shadows. It crosses the boundary into bad taste that bit too often and has tonal shifts that are whiplash induces in their suddenness. However, when it comes together it is truly joyous. Describing these moments in any detail would spoil the delight of watching them occur, but trust me when I say that there’s some sweetness to counter the radical lunacy.
Whilst some of this is courtesy of the story and dialogue – ‘backward mind-power trick’ being my personal favourite throwaway line – it’s the performances that make this film. Continuing the tradition of Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) in Hunt…, this an ensemble cast of fantastic actors centred on an extraordinarily accomplished performance by a child actor. Or actors in this case. Griffin Davis does a superb job as the lonely and idealistic Jojo.
McKenzie, who stunned in the criminally under-seen Leave No Trace, is a captivating counter to Jojo. Forced to become older than her years, living every moment in absolute fear, she remains fierce and resolute. Or at least that’s how she seems to Jojo. Along for the ride is an excellent Johansson as Jojo’s loving mother, who brings depth to the quirk of her character. There’s also Sam Rockwell, providing us with another ‘racist with a heart of hold’ whilst utilising the oddball mentor he showcased so brilliantly in The Way, Way Back. An honorary mention should also go to Alfie Allen – who does a lot with the little he has to do. In fact he steals every scene he’s in as hype man to Rockwell’s Nazi Captain.
It would be remiss to not mention how great Waititi himself is as Hitler. As with the film itself, no-one could do it as he does it. His Hitler is simultaneously incompetent and scheming, encouraging yet dominating, kind yet scary. Rather apt when considering present day political figures. And that’s what lets the film work, even when it doesn’t fully. Whilst set over 70 years ago, this anti-hate satire feels scarily relevant. The serious side of things is more than present and correct, but served with the lunacy and irreverence we come to expect from Waititi. The two things never counteract, but instead compliment each other, serving a rallying cry against small-mindedness and self-mindedness and shallow-mindedness.
Waititi yet again finds the heart in amongst the darkness, the sweet within the bitter: reminding us of the need to listen, pay attention and look out for each other. All within a coming of age story that is really like no other.
Jojo Rabbit is in UK cinemas from 3rd January 2020.