The coming-of-age genre is a style of film that exists to ensure young people that everything will be alright. Coming-of-age films, however, do not typically center around a 10-year-old Nazi whose imaginary best friend is Adolf Hitler.
That is, until “Jojo Rabbit” (2019).
Director Taika Waititi — who also directed “Thor: Ragnarok” — takes on a difficult task with his latest project, making a funny, dark and dramatic film also feel real and fantastical all at once.
Based on the novel “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunens, "Jojo Rabbit" is set in the final months of World War II.
The plot follows a young German boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old boy raised during the largest war the world has ever seen, who wants nothing more than to become a soldier and rise through the ranks to become best friends with Hitler.
The heart of the film comes from the conflicting desires of Jojo: he wants so desperately to be a good Nazi, but he is a non-violent, caring young boy. Jojo is further challenged when he discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic.
The film is entirely satirical. Nazis are portrayed largely as Scooby-Doo-level villains, but are still capable of the real-world violence that Nazis actually dealt with in their day-to-day lives. All of the villains are played comedically by notable actors such as Rebel Wilson (“Pitch Perfect”), Sam Rockwell (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) and Alfie Allen (“Game of Thrones”).
In his times of struggle, reflection and self-doubt, Jojo also converses with an imaginary Hitler (Waititi) in order to sort out his thoughts. Hitler takes the place of the devil on Jojo’s shoulder, encouraging violence and forwarding the already-ingrained nationalism in Jojo’s mind. Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), on the other shoulder, is the angel — encouraging love, dance and compassion at every point of conflict.
In a particularly heartwarming moment of the film, Jojo and his mother bond by dancing in the park after a heavy conversation. Hitler looks on at the mother and son from a distance with disgust.
Jojo struggles with identity throughout the film. As he begins to build a bond with someone he is supposed to hate, his whole notion of the world crumbles.
“You're not a Nazi, Jojo,” Elsa reminds him. “You're a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”
Despite the dark setup, “Jojo Rabbit” is actually an incredibly heartfelt film, centering on the emergence of love, even when hate is the status quo.
Waititi, who wrote and directed the film and played Hitler in it, took incredible measures to ensure that any portrayal of Nazis was explicitly satirical or evil. Many jokes are made at the expense of Nazis, Nazi propaganda and the fact that their losing the war was bound to happen.
Stylistically, the film echoes the works of Wes Anderson. Early scenes in the film scream the influence of “Moonrise Kingdom."
A surprisingly bright color palette lends much-needed levity to what would otherwise be a bleak setting. Balanced and varied framing is used to make every scene in the film appear carefully constructed and light-hearted.
Jojo’s family home is brightly colored with deep greens and bold yellows. The buildings on the German streets are vibrant with every color of the rainbow rather than the typical gray-brown palette of other World War II films.
The score is an equal balance of wistful and mournful piano music, as well as German dubbed remixes of 60s pop-rock such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles or David Bowie’s “Heroes,” appropriately setting the mood for the films various tones.
The only real problems with the film are the range of accents — some characters speak in a German-English accent while others sound as though they would fit better in Waititi’s native New Zealand — and a third act that is a bit too humorous for the heavy topic the subject matter is covering.
With Oscar season beginning to rear its head, “Jojo Rabbit” will likely find itself among the buzz for nominations. Specific standouts were the writing, set design and the performances from McKenzie (Elsa), Johansson (Rosie) and supporting actor Rockwell (Captain Klenzendorf).
“Jojo Rabbit” is a darkly comedic coming-of-age story about finding light in the darkest of places. The film hits theaters Friday, Nov. 8.