The 39th Hawaii International Film Festival is currently underway in Honolulu, and the 11-day event began with a stellar opening night screening last Thursday of Taika Waititi’s latest film, Jojo Rabbit. Set in Nazi Europe, the dark comedy loosely based on the Christine Leunens novel, Caging Skies, follows a 10-year-old Hitler Youth (Roman Griffin Davis) who finds out his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home. Through getting to know her, he comes to question his own beliefs, even in the midst of his imaginary friend, an idiotic version of Adolf Hitler played by Waititi himself, trying to tell him otherwise.
How does one create a comedy set in one of the most brutal time periods of human history? For Waititi, it is by way of a balance between well-timed humor, moments of harsh reality, and effective performances all around. In several ways, Jojo Rabbit is tonally and thematically reminiscent of his 2010 film, Boy, which also tells the story of a boy who fills his time with imaginary scenarios, while dealing with an absentee father.
There are so many laugh-out-loud moments throughout the film; whether that be through the obscurity of the situation, slap stick scenarios, and self awareness. There are moments that one might even find a little questionable to be laughing about, when generally speaking, it’s all done in good faith and impeccable skill with Waititi in the director’s chair. Even the scene where the Jewish girl, Elsa, is explaining to Jojo who the Jews are is done in a purposely dry delivery of snarky, smart-ass sass.
Jojo Rabbit is a film that makes itself so obviously written and directed by Waititi. Apart from the incredible use of humor, it also has its serious moments and they come through as sober reminders of where and when this story is set. Jojo aspires to be like Hitler in all his fascist glory. The film does not hold back on incorporating the effects as a result of his power: Citizens scraping by on scarce food and utilities, children taking part in the war, people being hung in public places for rebelling, and 6 million Jews killed via mass extermination.
The actors all around were incredible to watch. Davis as Jojo is already on the road to being quite an actor who can do it all, just from how he carried this role as his debut work. McKenzie evokes an admirable character in Elsa as one who keeps it real, is serious when she needs to, and humorous when she wants to. Johansson is lovable and amazing to watch as Rosie (as she is in most roles where she’s not pretending to be an Asian woman). Waititi skillfully over-exaggerates the beliefs Hitler embodied to the fullest extent as he makes a big impression in every scene he’s in — emulating behavior that actually isn’t far off from how the orange in the office regularly behaves.
It was a little strange though to see a film set around a Hitler Youth, and yet is hardly seen with the other Hitler Youth members after the first half hour. While it’s understandable in the scheme of wanting to build more moments around Jojo and his relationships with his mother and Elsa, it is misleading when the marketing for Jojo Rabbit seemed to have indicated more involvement from the former.
In addition, having Rebel Wilson as Fräulein Rahm, while a minor role, was ultimately an unnecessary one in the overall story. It looked like it was a role created for her to spout some poorly executed humor, in a film that already has loads of humorous moments. If that role was absolutely needed, if anything, it would have been wiser to have cast the noticeably absent Rachel House as her instead. Jojo Rabbit is the second feature film from Waititi she has not appeared in; the first being his 2014 film, What We Do In the Shadows.
Flaws aside, Jojo Rabbit is a film that needs to be seen now more than ever. In a time where history is repeating itself by way of destructive world leaders, prejudices held against people of different communities, and families separated by way of deportations and incarceration, this film can be seen as a response to all that is going on. It’s a prime examination of how children can model the adults in what they say or do, for better or for worse. While it’s primarily on the adults to take a look in the mirror once in a while, as Jojo Rabbit shows, children tend to be wiser for doing so more often.
Additional recommended viewing: Jojo Rabbit is not the first time Waititi wrote and directed a film set during World War II. His 2005 short film, Tama Tu, also intertwines humor in the face of war as a group of Māori soldiers wait for a coming battle, while hiding out in a destroyed house.