‘Jojo Rabbit’ takes on a lot and accomplishes plenty

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Directed by Taika Waititi

“Anti-hate satire” is a big ambition for such a small movie as “Jojo Rabbit.” It sets a lofty goal. Will “Jojo Rabbit” cure all of your Trump’s America anxieties? Well, not quite—and yet, director Taika Waititi’s quirky WWII-set comedy is still a wonderfully tender (and very funny) coming-of-age story told against a backdrop of otherworldly tragedy. That is enough, I would argue, to classify Waititi’s newest a can’t-miss.

When ten-year-old, swastika-obsessed Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is sent home from Nazi youth camp after an accident with a grenade, he has more time to spend with his doting mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), and his imaginary friend, Adolf (Waititi doing a Hitler impression that’s just the right amount of wrong). But all of this time at home leads to another discovery—a young Jewish woman (Thomasin McKenzie) living inside a wall of his house. Everything he has been taught tells him that he should turn her in to the Gestapo, but doing so would endanger his family. So instead, he starts to talk to her.

Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit (2019)

“Jojo Rabbit” is being distributed by one of the many studios now under the Disney umbrella…so, of course, that context has influenced viewers’ early reactions to it. If that fact is front-of-mind, this self-billed “anti-hate satire” may seem more muted than you expected. You might think, Did Disney water down what might have been a biting anti-fascist film? Who knows. If you look at the movie through TIFF-colored lenses, like the ones that critics were wearing last month—when “Jojo Rabbit” premiered amongst a sea of Oscar hopefuls at the festival—the movie might seem like it pulled too many punches. It’s not tackling hate in the same way “BlacKkKlansman” did last year, for instance. But if you take away the lofty ambitions given to “Jojo Rabbit” by its marketing team (and by the leagues of anticipatory audiences expected a Best Picture contender from a well-known director, perhaps), you’re left with something incredible, but in a different way. Something smaller than you expected, maybe, or sweeter. But incredible in its own right. At least, that’s what I found. Nobody questions that “Jojo Rabbit” is a well-made movie—most of the critical responses I’ve read mentioned that it just wasn’t as good as they hoped. So maybe set your expectations a little lower than “cured my depression.”

Sam Rockwell, Taika Waititi, and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Perhaps some of that hope stemmed from its stellar cast. Rest assured, all of that excitement is definitely warranted. I mean, holy shit, Thomasin McKenzie! Last year’s “Leave No Trace” put the 19-year-old actress on the map, but despite her “Jojo Rabbit” character’s cramped confines (in direct opposition to her character in “Leave No Trace”) McKenzie’s performance feels freer, like “Jojo Rabbit” allowed her to let loose a little more. Credit Waititi’s hilarious and earnest script, partly, but the young actress is mature beyond her years. Her co-star, Ronan Griffin Davis, also breaks out in a big way. Time will tell how this child actor matures, but for now, he should be expecting some calls and offers to audition. In a smaller role, Scarlett Johansson does just about everything right in her portrayal of what might be considered the ideal mother. She’s warm and nonjudgmental, and always knows the right thing to say. Again, we can thank Waititi for crafting a wonderful character, but few could have translated such a cartoonishly perfect person as believably as Johansson. She may very well be a part of award season conversations.

I can count on one hand how many 2019 movies I’ve seen that have been better than “Jojo Rabbit,” and though that might change between now and the end of the year, that’s no reason to dismiss this charming comedy just because it’s “Oscar season” and this one might not be competing for as many awards as you’d hoped.

7.5/10

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