Saturday, November 9, 2019

Jojo Rabbit Takes A Bonkers Premise And Makes Something Quite Special With It

Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), the lead character of Jojo Rabbit, is a ten-year-old boy like many others. He has an imaginary friend, he has a passion for the outdoors and he loves his Mom, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), even if he sometimes struggles to express that. But unlike many ten-year-old boys, Jojo is a Gentile growing up in Nazi Germany and he's as passionate about everything related to Nazism as modern-day ten-year-olds are with Magic: The Gathering. His ardent dedication to all things Nazi is reflected in his imaginary friend, his own version of Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). However, Jojo's world gets turned upside down when he learns that his Mom has taken in a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) and is hiding her from the Gestapo in a secret compartment in their house.

The story of Jojo Rabbit is one that has drawn numerous comparisons to Roberto Benigni's award-winning but largely-maligned Life is Beautiful, but the movie it actually reminded me the most of was One Child Nation. This 2019 documentary from directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang chronicles how Wang grew up in China surrounded by propaganda espousing the gloriousness of the countries leaders and its one-child-policy. Wang was, like many Chinese citizens, enamored with the ideas present by the propaganda, and even into her teenage years, she held up signs promoting the wonders of this policy which she later learned had massive horrifying consequences on human lives that she had been totally blind to. It's a position she expresses immense regret for in the documentary as she explains the horrors, like signage promising violent consequences to women who have too many children, that were lying in plain sight all along in places like her neighborhood.

From an outsider perspective, it's easy to see that such things like that signage are wicked and it should be noted that exploring this perspective is not absolve all guilt of people who are complicit in watching atrocities play out in front of them. But One Child Nation does contemplate the fascinating perspective of being someone who grows up in a society where the inhumane is the norm, where you don't even question such monstrousness because, well, the concept of it being monstrousness is totally foreign to you. Jojo Rabbit also explores such a perspective in its own endlessly unique way. Such distinctiveness is on full display in an opening scene depicting Jojo attending a Hitler Youth camp, where he and the fellow youngsters engage in gruesome activities (like pretending to cave in people's heads with rocks) that are clearly barbaric and awful.

However, writer/director Taika Waititi films this scene in a manner reminiscent of a wistful family movie to capture the perspective of Jojo whose totally oblivious to the grisly nature of the activities he and his fellow campers are engaging in. There's plenty of amusing dark humor to be wrung out of this dissonance but the way in which Jojo's own perspective is so shifted from reality is also effectively communicated here. An extension of Jojo's total adherence to embracing fantasy over reality is how we see Jojo refuse to address the absent members of his family like his war-bound Father or his deceased Sister. Jojo has no time to confront such real emotional wounds that would bring out his own humanity, he must spend his time interacting with imaginary Hitler.

Now, admittedly, not everything that's related to the lead character of Jojo Rabbit works. There are a few instances of his crude anti-Semitic behavior that do feel like they don't really serve much of a purpose for his character or the story, it just feels like they're hammering home a critical component of the character that's already been made apparent. But for the most part, Jojo as a protagonist actually works far better than he should because of how Waititi actually explores his psyche in an insightful manner. The complex relationship he has with his Mom, the friendship he develops with Elsa, the way he behaves and acts like a real authentic child and not just some overly sassy "movie child", they all add up to ensure that this character is one you can find yourself getting emotionally attached to despite his most repugnant moments.

His character arc is especially interesting given how Waititi's script is not at all hesitant in incorporating darker elements to what could have been simply a fanciful dark comedy tale. The first half of Jojo Rabbit is all about dark humor juxtaposing Jojo's childlike perspective with the horrors of Nazi Germany as well as with Jojo's prejudiced attitude getting undercut at every turn. However, when it comes time for more serious parts of the story to rear their head, writer/director Taika Waititi not only pulls off such scenes extremely well but also uses these sequences to reveal to the audience how invested they've become in these characters without even realizing it. It's a feat that reminded me of how previous Waititi feature Hunt for the Wilderpeople had a poignant ending capping off a wacky on-the-run comedy, this filmmaker just has a gift for balancing comedy and character-driven pathos so well.

Here, much of the emotion comes from watching reality slowly intrude more and more into Jojo's world. Such a gradual reveal eventually hits you right in the gut and even harder in the tear ducts since Jojo Rabbit does not hold back punches in making the presence of reality known in a brutal fashion. Meanwhile, a mid-movie scene involving the Gestapo paying a visit to Jojo's house similarly registers as utterly terrifying and unpredictable as well as being a great showcase for the talents of Stephen Merchant. All the while, Waititi's writing and filmmaking maintain tension beautifully in these kinds of sequences while also having enough confidence to refrain from comedy if the scene requires it. Jojo Rabbit is interested in quality, not quantity, which means such intense scenes can breathe without getting undercut by a shoehorned-in gag.

Combining these intense scenes with satirical comedy that frequently involves a warped version of the real boy/imaginary friend dynamic from Moone Boy sounds like a recipe for disaster conceptually and it's doubtful the unique tonal blend of Jojo Rabbit will work for everybody. I must say though, it did work for me tremendously well, particularly the poignant parts of the movie. Those little scenes between Jojo and Elsa where they begin to bond, for instance, are so moving, especially since Thomasin MacKenzie's performance as Elsa effectively communicates the character's complex feelings towards Jojo. Plus, Elsa doesn't just befriend Jojo right away, it takes time for them to grow closer to one another. Jojo Rabbit's thoughtful nature towards its characters is reflected in its gradual depiction of both this friendship forming and how Jojo's perspective on the world around him begins to change. The interactions between Jojo and his Mom have a similarly realistically messy quality to them, a quality enhanced by Scarlett Johansson's fantastic & authentic performance that's so full of endearing soul and heart. This more slow-and-steady method found all throughout the character relationships in Jojo Rabbit totally touched my heart, totally won me over and reflects the thoughtful nature that informs this special piece of dark comedy cinema. Needless to say, Viago the Vampire has done it again.

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