Comedy/drama, rated PG-13, 108 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
Like something from the mind of director Wes Anderson, writer and director Taika Waititi presents a twee version of World War II-era Berlin in Jojo Rabbit. But it’s a world seen through the eyes of a child. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is an only child whose father, he thinks, is off fighting the war for Germany. He lives with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), in a modest, two-story home in a middle-class section of Berlin. His only real friend is imaginary: a fatherly Adolf Hitler with a tendency to fly off the handle whenever Jews are mentioned. Ten-year-old Jojo, a Hitler fanatic, is one of the Hitlerjungend, or Hitler Youth. He decorates his room with swastikas and posters of the Führer. He believes, unquestioningly, in the superiority of the Aryan people and the evilness of the Jews. Adolf (Waititi, camping it up) encourages him with inspirational pep talks. “You’re the bestest little Nazi ever.”
Waititi is no stranger to comedy. The latest from the director of What We Do in the Shadows plays, at first, like a farce. Its comedy is fast-paced, at times approaching slapstick. It takes its time to find its emotional core and as it does, the humor settles down and the drama mostly takes over, edging, at times, into rank sentimentalism.
Waititi may be accused of attempting to humanize a regime that most think of in starker terms, but it’s hard not to like Jojo. Despite his authoritarian leanings and love for all things Nazi, he’s only a child and not responsible for the things he believes. Davis is a fine young actor who convincingly captures the confusion and frustrations of someone who thinks he has all the answers but is forced to question his most cherished beliefs. He plays the role with a range of complex emotions, all while retaining a sense of innocence. He’ll win you over.
Jojo’s problems multiply as the story unfolds. First, he’s nearly disfigured by a hand grenade at a Hitlerjungend camp, which forces him to spend most of his time at home. Then he discovers that his mother does not share his political leanings — she’s rooting for the Allies. In fact, (spoiler alert!) Rosie and her husband are actually members of the Resistance. To make matters worse for the conflicted Jojo, Rosie’s harboring a Jew in a secret room. Jojo believes that Jews have horns and tails, hang upside down like bats when they’re asleep, and use mind control to hypnotize their enemies. What’s he to make of Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), the gaunt teenage girl living behind the walls, who’s clearly human? He can’t turn her in because he’ll be signing his own mother’s death warrant. He decides to keep her presence a secret.
Elsa jokingly affirms all of Jojo’s fanciful notions about Jews and, in his naiveté, he believes her. He even plans to chronicle their ghastliness in a book. But despite himself, he is drawn to the slightly older girl and develops his first boyhood crush. She tells him about her fiancé, a Resistance fighter named Nathan, and soon Jojo’s filling the book with violent, jealousy-driven fantasies about the missing boyfriend. This is revealed when government authorities discover the book during an allegedly routine inspection of Rosie’s home. It’s a revealing scene that blends emotional subtext, tension, and comedy to near perfection. An angry Adolf, appalled by Jojo’s shifting alliances, starts losing his hold, and his appearances become less frequent.
The film’s second half takes a darker turn as Allied forces advance in the city and local officials become suspicious of Rosie. The final act, set amid war-torn Berlin, is funny, touching, and bittersweet in equal measure, but marred by mawkish disregard for the brutal realities of war. Jojo Rabbit may strain your credulity, but never at the expense of its young protagonists, who shine throughout.