Tue. Sep 17th, 2019

Toronto Review: Taika Waititi’s relevant, risky and emotion-packed ‘Jojo Rabbit’

Courtesy of TIFF

Taika Waititi delivers a brilliant and timely film that takes risks and packs an incredible emotional punch

Before THOR: RAGNAROK, Taika Waititi was known for his touching, intimate, small-scale films that were graced with intimate storytelling, genuine emotion and a celebration of the underdogs. More akin to his box office indie sensation HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE, Waititi returns to his roots and delivers quite an unconventional, innovative and emotionally charged film that takes multiple risks and never sticks to traditional storytelling. And the result is electrifying work that is surely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea – given the subject matter – but for those looking beyond the film’s mix of comedic and dramatic mannerisms, there is much to love here.

Taking place in Nazi Germany but drawing clear parallels with radical terrorist groups such as ISIS or Al Shabab who plagued the world with hate crimes and beheadings, or perhaps we should look no further than POTUS’ own Twitter account, Waititi instills timely themes in a dark comedy package that hits most of the right tones and despite a few flaws still remains quite an achievement and an accessible, entertaining picture on how love trumps hate and a fascinating look at the deconstruction of radicalism without grandstanding, on-the-nose messages that could have fallen flat or been in direct clash with what is a deceptively light, but thematically dense, story.

Jojo is a radicalized boy who grows up without a father. His mother (a fantastic Scarlett Johansson) is a covert anti-Nazi fighter who attempts to get her son back to his senses, but the brainwashing – and more importantly loneliness in the absence of a true role model in his life – leads him on a path that few ever return from. Jojo’s loneliness drives him to create an imaginary friend: Adolf Hitler himself. While being mocked in war camp for being too fragile and toothless. An unfortunate incident leads Jojo out of the camp where he spends much time as an observer rather than an active participant in Nazi military ops. Back at home, he makes a stunning discovery of a Jewish runaway girl (Elsa played by Thomasin Mckenzie) who Jojo’s mother had helped hide behind a secret door in their house.

There is no denying that the film is a hire-wire act that will prove polarizing and potentially off-putting for those who may be unwilling to watch a film with Nazi themes and with Hitler played for laughs. But while the film does indeed perhaps overplay its comedic chops – and Waititi’s performance as Hitler risks turning the film into a mere caricature – the film is grounded by its other excellent performances and tender final third. As Jojo’s mother, Johansson brings warmth and charm to the role, while Roman Griffin Jones absolutely shines as Jojo, whose quest for self discovery is remarkably touching. But the film belongs to Mckenzie who delivers an impeccable performance as Elsa. More than just convince in the role, she grounds the film altogether and brings much depth and quiet moments of grace and agony even when several scenes are played out for satire.

Jojo’s journey of awakening – rather than a mere coming-of-age experience – is presented beautifully and without sudden or unjustified instances of gratification. As he navigates – and engages in – a world of hate and discrimination, he finds his true self only by engaging with his fears and inner hate. It’s a journey that reflects on the process of radicalization today and the importance of dialogue and the essential process of listening and sincerely trying to understand those who we demonize so we can see them more clearly – and see ourselves, too, in the process. Only then would we be capable of healing, rediscovering who we want to be in this world and courageous enough to admit ignorance and perhaps even accept forgiveness.

The film is gorgeous to look at, thanks to vivid cinematography by Mihai Malaimare, and such detailed production design by Ra Vincent that brings us back to a time where hatred was a winning currency. While the film could have certainly have used less Hitler and more Jojo – in fact the story could have completely lost Hitler and would still remain as engaging, it still remains a truly inventive work that will stir conversations for a long time to come.

Verdict:  Not for everyone, JOJO RABBIT is a film that sparks conversations and delivers genuine emotion packaged in satire form. Relevant to our times, it’s a risky, entertaining and passionately made film that deserves to be lauded.

Grade: B+

This review is from the 44th Toronto International Film Festival. Fox Searchlight will release Jojo Rabbit on October 18.

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