New from A Reel of One’s Own by Andrea Thompson: Toronto International Film Festival 2019: Jojo Rabbit

By Andrea Thompson

One night I dealt with a scenario every woman is probably familiar with. I was taking the bus home quite late at night, when I looked up and saw a man staring at me with a lecherous smirk and fondling himself. When I related this experience to another woman and described giving him a calmly disgusted stare of my own, she said she had a different strategy with men like this – she laughed at them. Why? Because that was the one thing they didn’t thrive on and couldn’t stand.

As I was watching Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” I couldn’t help but think it had a similar philosophy. It addresses the present by showing us a hateful past that threatens to rear its ugly head all over again…and chooses to laugh. Not to make light of the forces at work, or diminish the threat they pose, but to take an approach they’ve never been able to master, that of the satire. We tend to forget that laughter can not only be a powerful coping method, but a weapon.

Waititi also takes a very unconventional approach, one that’s guaranteed to make people uncomfortable. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a 10-year-old boy growing up in Nazi Germany, but rebellious he is not. He’s a proud member of the Hitler Youth who’s such a true believer his imaginary friend is Hitler himself, played with equal parts humor and horror by director Taika Waititi. When he discovers his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish woman named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home, their first meeting is akin to a horror sequence, so thoroughly has he embraced Nazi propaganda.

Fearful of turning his mother in, Jojo soon develops a rapport, then a friendship with Elsa as his world and his views on it slowly erode. Thankfully, Elsa also isn’t an angelic creature who exists to do away with Jojo’s prejudice. She acts like a someone naturally would after being hidden in isolation for years and losing nearly everyone she cares about. Johansson is also devastating as a mother clinging to the hope that the loving son she knew hasn’t completely disappeared, while Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson are hilarious (until they’re not) as Nazi officials. Wilson gets less to do, but she makes the most of lines such as, “I’ve had 18 babies for Germany. Such a great year to be a girl.”

“Jojo Rabbit” has no right to work under the circumstances, but the film gives us more than enough horrifying consequences to escape claims of softening hateful ideologies and the danger they pose. The dark humor it uses won’t be to everyone’s taste (and there are moments when it teeters on the brink of tastelessness), but the fact remains that “Jojo Rabbit” manages to make a case for resilience and love in one of history’s darkest moments while being pretty damn funny.

Grade: A-

from A Reel Of One’s Own

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