By Ambar Chatterjee
'Jojo Rabbit's earnest heart shines brighter than all the comedy, violence and insanity that is making it famous'
Release Date: 18/10/2019
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Archie Yates
Director: Taika Waititi
Rating: Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)
Jojo Rabbit is the story of little Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) living with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) during the last days of Nazi Germany. He is a true fanatic and ticks all the boxes for being the perfect Nazi. Rosie is a performer and refers to Jojo as the little cub for his fiery ways. Jojo presents a strong picture of himself to the outside world but inside he is an insecure and vulnerable kid who is just what a 10-year-old should be. The only person that he shares his true feelings and self with is his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). Soon Jojo's life is turned upside down when he realizes that his mother is harboring a Jew, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) at their house. Jojo is forced to keep the secret because if he were to spill the beans to the Gestapo, it would implicate him and his mother. Also, the Jew threatened to cut off his Nazi head if he spilled the secret. Thus he is forced to put up with her but in doing so he starts realizing that she might not be so bad after all.
Jojo Rabbit is hilarious to start with, gets insane in the middle, then is sensitive for a while and finally goes all out ballistic in the end. The first few minutes of the film where we see Roman Griffin Davis and Taika Waititi share some moments that set up the character of Jojo and his version of Adolf Hitler are laugh out loud. The humor is subtle but effective. There is a dialogue which I believe is in the trailer as well, where Adolf tells Jojo that he shouldn't be worried about what people think of him as his detractors believed that he was crazy, lunatic and would bring the whole country death and destruction. This line made me fall off my chair laughing as it not only was in stark contrast to what I would call counseling a kid in the current scenario that Jojo and Adolf were in at that moment but was also a perfect call out to how dismissive and detached from the real state of the war Adolf Hitler was. Numerous such sequences between Waititi and Davis can be watched again and again plainly because of how well written and well-acted they are. Adolf calls Elsa a "female Jewish Jesse Owens" because of her speed and then calls her a "female Jewish Jesse Owens Jack the Ripper" when he realizes that she has a knife. These lines will remain etched in my memory forever and I will be able to savor them years from now.
Once Elsa is discovered, the film takes a different turn as we get to see what happens when a fanatic Nazi meets his match in a free-willed and feisty Jew who is willing to take his every indignation and turn it on its head with reason, logic and a little bit of warmth. This is the portion that shows us how good at heart Jojo is and how far away from the brutality and hatefulness of the Nazi he is. He instantly takes a romantic liking to Elsa and hence when she mentions her boyfriend, he tries to dismiss his existence by reading her a letter that he has written himself in the guise of the boyfriend. However, upon realizing that the content of the letter made Elsa sad, he immediately mends her heart in one of the sweetest ways possible that makes Elsa melt. Thus starts the story of an unlikely camaraderie between a Nazi and a Jew. I cannot praise enough the subtlety and the sheer amount of heart that Taika Waititi brings to the screen in these portions.
A very important aspect of the film is the relationship between Jojo and his mother Rosie. Not only is this portion extremely important to understand the situation and predicament of the common Germans under the Nazi rule but it also went on to show how a mother braved all odds to keep a smiling face in front of his 10-year-old kid knowing fully well that all his beliefs and love for a charismatic leader is grossly misplaced. Scarlett Johansson is outstanding. She shares several sequences with Roman Griffin Davis where the two speak about nothing important but how they try to find solace in each other's company through words and actions are bound to warm anyone's heart. In a key scene, Jojo misbehaves with his mother and tells her that only his father could have been able to understand his predicament. Rosie puts on her husband's uniform and does what she deems a fitting response from her husband to her son at that juncture. However, the scene doesn't end there. It goes on further and culminates with the mother and son sharing a tender moment that just reiterates the fact that this is an exceptionally sentimental and sweet film.
Roman Griffin Davis is a revelation as Jojo. The whole film anchors on his performance and he doesn't let the director down. I was amazed at the earnestness of the boy. Not for a second did I not take him for the character that he was playing. He not only looks the part but also feels the part. The scene towards the end where he tries to stab Elsa is a primary example of that. One can see the angst and sadness in his eyes. It must have been incredibly difficult for a little kid to pull that off. He shares some of the film's most earnest scenes in the company of Archie Yates who plays his friend Yorki. These scenes work as a commentary on the current state of the country with the two kids caught in the middle of all the madness. Yates is a screen stealer for his impeccable comic timing and indelible charm and he complements Davis beat for beat.
Thomasin McKenzie is terrific. The scenes she shares with Davis are warm and also show how two individuals who are supposed to hate each other can find peace in each other's company if they choose to seek it. Jojo Rabbit may have the scenes between Jojo and Adolf as its selling point but the heart of the film is centered on Jojo's relationship with Elsa and his mother. These are scenes that make the film what it is. It is interesting to note that during these scenes, Adolf's character is nowhere to be seen for long durations indicating that Jojo hasn't found any need for Adolf's counsel and is at peace in his relationship with his mother and Elsa. This was in many ways a masterstroke from Waititi which I believe many didn't get. There would also be those who would complain that Adolf was there not for long enough. To all those, I request to re-watch the film and try to notice the sequences when Adolf appears in. Taika Waititi as Adolf Hitler is outrageously fun and deserves a standing ovation for his hilarious antics. He catches the beat of the character perfectly and that makes his performance that much more memorable.
Jojo Rabbit is an exceptionally well-crafted film that is beautiful to look at. The film not only drives home all the points that it sets out to deal with, but it also does so with immaculate precision and indelible charm. If you enjoy films, this one must be at the top of your watch list this year.