Filmmaker Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) is rapidly becoming one of our generation's most important auteurs, and he's just earned a spot in the pantheon of semi–humorous war films like Life is Beautiful or King of Hearts with his uproarious, uplifting and very funny Jojo Rabbit based on the Christine Leunens novel Caged Skies.
We follow Jojo (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old Nazi growing up in the fading days of World War II Germany. Jojo's a bit of a fanatic, a patriot to a terrifying degree with a -penchant for his country's military and Adolf Hitler for an imaginary friend (Waititi plays Hitler in addition to directing and screenwriting duties). But when Jojo discovers a young Jewish woman named Else (Thomasin McKenzie) hidden in his home by his mother (Scarlett Johansson), he's shaken to his core and begins to question the very fabric of his beliefs and being.
The kudos are almost too numerous to hand out, from Waititi's brilliantly sardonic and darkly hysterical take on Hitler to a trio of bumbling Nazi officers played by Rebel Wilson, Sam Rockwell and Alfie Allen, a -startlingly nuanced Johansson (who can hopefully lose the transphobic behavior someday soon), to Stephen Merchant's deeply disturbing turn as an -imposing but painfully polite SS officer. But it's young Davis' performance as the sensitive and evolving Jojo that steals the film. Certainly Waititi's direction had a little something to do with it, but for a kid actor in a first outing, Davis absolutely nails comedic timing, heartbreaking revelations and even the subtleties of self-doubt and sexual awakening. It may be the most -fully-formed and memorable youth performance since To Kill a Mockingbird, which is especially fascinating in that he's a literal Nazi.
But, like all of Waititi's work, there's an -absurdism bubbling beneath the surface of the more overt messaging. He's a master at pulling an audience into the awkward and keeping us there, questioning. It isn't always easy but, like Jojo, we need to face it if we're to gain a better understanding. If nothing else, Jojo Rabbit isn't anything like you assume—it's far better.
+Smart and funny; heartbreaking and magical
-A little too Wes Anderson-y in moments
Directed by Waititi
With Davis, Johansson, McKenzie, and Waititi
Center for Contemporary Arts, Violet Crown, PG-13, 108 min.