With Hunt For the Wilderpeople, Taika Waititi already proved that he could handle the challenges of kid-focused storytelling without veering awkwardly into cheap sentimentality; unsurprisingly, it was one of the best films of 2016. Despite a concept that seemingly wears its precociousness on its sleeve, Waititi’s longtime passion project Jojo Rabbit, a (sorta) adaptation of Christine Leunens, handily surpasses its predecessor with the story of a lonely 10-year-old German boy and his imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler. A deft balance of discordant tones has always been Waititi’s stock and trade as a filmmaker, but here he uses that skill to extraordinary effect while exploring a rich tapestry of themes that feel as relevant politically as they are relatable personally.
Roman Griffin Davis plays Jojo Betzler, a WWII-era boy whose overzealous admiration for Nazism, and more specifically his imaginary best friend Hitler (Waititi), threatens to alienate him from his single mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). A fierce nationalist but still sadly just a kid at heart, he doesn’t have the ruthlessness to kill a rabbit during a training exercise at a Hitler Youth camp. But after he injures himself trying to redeem his reputation among the older boys, not to mention the camp’s cynical Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), Jojo starts spending more time at home with Rosie when he’s not keeping busy with menial tasks in Klenzendorf’s office.
One day when sorting through the belongings of his late sister, Jojo discovers a secret compartment in the wall of her room where Rosie has hidden a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). Terrified and later repulsed by what he has been taught is a monstrous creature, Jojo considers turning her in before realizing that it may mean certain death for him and his mother. But after he hatches a plan to learn about Jews for a book to help demystify them and help the Nazis defeat their “craftiest” foe, Jojo slowly begins to bond with the young woman, much to the consternation of Hitler, who wants his would-be protégé to destroy her and assume his place in the German leader’s inner circle.
When the film was originally announced, Jojo Rabbit felt like mud in the eye of modern-day dictators and totalitarian leaders as much as it was the kind of wild, farcical premise that Waititi repeatedly excels at delivering. And striking a wild balance between Richard Lester and Leni Riefenstahl, Roberto Benigni and Steven Spielberg, it mercilessly dunks on Nazis precisely as it should, using contemporary vernacular and anachronistic scenarios to reveal how ridiculous an ideology theirs really is. But the film manages to transcend its comical portrait of Hitler and his regime to use the tools of the Nazis against them in a uniquely human way, as Jojo transforms from a young boy desperate to belong into one who realizes that belonging is about a different kind of sameness than beliefs or affiliations.
Jojo is at the beginning of the story an outsider, even though his enthusiasm for Nazis should make him the kind of soldier to be aspired to; he is so determined to prove himself that he quite literally almost blows himself to pieces. But it’s his intractable and mostly categorically wrong beliefs - about Jews and everything else - that actually alienate him from those around him. But once he meets Elsa and begins the process of “investigating” her behavior, he soon very unexpectedly discovers a soulful need within her that he cannot help but relate to - her family losses, mirroring his own; her marginally more urbane life experiences, competing with his deeply held beliefs; and eventually, her basic needs for food, shelter and emotional reassurance, infecting and dismantling the absurd “facts” he learned about a supposed foe. In connecting with her, he not only discovers her humanity, but his own, and as his feelings mature and he discovers the complexities of the danger they’re both in, it challenges him to re-evaluate the worldview that previously provided him with a sense of comfort and identity.
Davis exudes a perfect balance of 10-year-old bluster as well as the shy uncertainty of that same age. Jojo’s capable of small personal cruelties but his kindness and compassion always shines through, and like the best life lessons, he evolves and grows not from lectures or instruction but simple interactions and experiences. Johannson provides a wonderful, knowing counterpart in Rosie, a woman with an expectedly more sophisticated view of the world, who is trying to navigate her way around her son’s zealotry and bring out the compassionate kid that disappeared a long time ago, perhaps when his sister died, or father disappeared. That Rosie doesn’t know that Jojo knows about Elsa gives the movie a slightly thrilling charge of discovery, but what it really does is give him a friend that stands in stark contrast to his imaginary one, and later, provides a reflection of what she teaches him, even obliquely, as the wartime conflict threatens to impact their lives in more severe ways.
After delivering an astonishing breakthrough performance in last year’s Leave No Trace, McKenzie continues to be a beautiful, understated revelation as an actress. The native Australian again transforms herself for a role - another one with wisdom beyond the character’s years - but she really taps into Elsa’s battle between dealing with an extremely hostile world and the childlike imagination of her new companion that she desperately needs or wants to reconnect with. Conversely, Waititi makes a fairly delightful, buffoonish caricature of his Hitler - as he should, since he’s filtered through this boy’s imagination as both an idealized inspiration and confidante. His work is further reflected in a directorial touch that feels like no one else’s - he’s only merciless to the characters that deserve it, but gives this childhood world the silliness it automatically possesses, political evil the gravitas that it needs, and personal tragedy the weight it deserves.
It’s the sort of approach to political allegory and fantasy-reality hybrid that perhaps understandably audiences may be unsure of going in, and further confused how to handle when it unfolds on screen. But Waititi is truly a master of balancing all of those different sorts of ideas and tones, and the film only evidences his advancing maturity after handling them so well in Wilderpeople, much less What We Do in the Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok. Perhaps it’s because the filmmaker seems to have an outsider’s sensibility himself that he manages to skewer outside perspectives so knowledgeably, and affectionately; or maybe it’s just because he’s never glib about the emotional substance of the story he’s telling, even when he’s repeatedly and devastatingly roasting a deserved target. But Jojo Rabbit tells a story that’s both pointedly contemporaneous and fundamentally timeless, reminding adults of the universality of our humanity by teaching a young boy how to discover not just one other person’s, but his own.