What stupid thing were you convinced was true when you were 10 years old? Kids routinely eat up lies told by their parents, schoolmates and society at large. If you were a kid in Nazi Germany, however, those lies would have compounded into something much more dangerous.
In Jojo Rabbit, which opens in Toronto on Oct. 25, and nationwide on Nov. 1, a young boy’s hormones juxtapose the crumbling Nazi regime, to shatter all childhood illusions. The boy is Jojo Betzler, nicknamed Rabbit because he once refused to kill an innocent one in the woods.
So brainwashed is Jojo that his imaginary friend, played with the smiling clown appeal of a 10-year-old’s imagination, is Hitler himself – he’s filling in for the boy’s father, who marched off to war.
Jojo is, according to imaginary Hitler, “the bestest little Nazi I’ve ever met.” Just wanting to fit in, he scrawls horned Jews into his sketchbook and dances to the buoyant vibes of a Hitler Youth summer camp. Hitlermania makes Nazism seem less a totalitarian regime than a really cool fad.
This changes, however, as the world itself transforms around him. The film’s greatest accomplishment is crafting dual narratives of disillusionment. At home, Jojo discovers a slightly older Jewish girl (played by Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in a hollowed-out wall, causing him to suddenly start analyzing the expressions of his mother (played by Scarlett Johansson). When Jojo finds the Gestapo at his doorstep, it feels less like meeting his heroes and more like … well, finding the Gestapo at his doorstep.
As Jojo, Roman Griffin Davis ties the film together with a perfectly precocious performance; without such a compelling lead, the whole thing would easily fall apart. Sometimes it does anyway. Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson pop in for a bit of Nazi slapstick, but the characters never really come together the way they could.
Mugging it up as Hitler is Taika Waititi, the film’s writer and director, whose mother is Jewish and father is Maori. (Between Waititi and Gilbert Gottfried whining his way through the same role in Netflix’s Historical Roasts, 2019 really shaped up as the year of Jews playing Hitler.)
But while Hitler starts off as an amusing invisible sidekick, he ends up mostly forgotten – and forgettable. As a writer, Waititi gets too easily distracted by one-off gags. A tighter screenplay would have cut the flab, especially in the middle, when the tension disappears.
But it’s easy to forgive the film these sins because it’s just so gobsmackingly unique. It’s the kind of intelligent, funny and daring original screenplay – free from remakes and sequels – that Hollywood desperately needs more of.
When we see Hitler pop back into Jojo’s imagination at the end, fuming with indignation over his teenage transformation, it makes sense why Waititi wrote the role as a throwaway.
It was never about Hitler. It was about one boy clinging to his childhood as it crumbled around him, like the stone walls of his Berlin neighbourhood, looking in the mirror and realizing no one – not his mother, the Jews, the Nazis, nor himself – is who he thought they were. And that isn’t always a bad thing.