'Jojo Rabbit' Review: Taika Waititi Expertly Balances Darkness And Light In One Of The Year's Best Films [TIFF 2019]

There's some sort of strange magic residing in Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit, a film that really shouldn't work – but does, with remarkable results. Waititi's World War II satire is both a magic trick and a high-wire act – the filmmaker keeps pulling rabbits out of his hat while balancing comedy, kindness, and often shocking darkness. The end result is a heartfelt, sweet, blackly comedic coming-of-age journey that tries to find hope in hopeless times.

World War II is winding down, and Germany is on the verge of defeat. But Nazi fanboy Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) refuses to accept such nonsense. He's a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the Fatherland, and he worships Adolf Hitler the way other kids might idolize rock stars – Waititi underlines this fact with a credit sequence set to the German version of the Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" cut against real footage of German citizens cheering and screaming in joy at Hitler's presence, as if it were Beatlemania. Jojo's Hitler fanaticism is so strong that the Führer has materialized as his imaginary best friend, played by Waititi.

Waititi's Hitler is nothing like the real man. Instead, he's a goofy, hilarious creep who likes to urge on Jojo's worst urges. If Hitler is the devil on Jojo's shoulder, Jojo's mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is the angel on the other shoulder. Rosie loves Germany, but she does not love the Nazis and prays for the day when the war is over and the real Hitler and his fascist regime are defeated. Jojo is appalled at his mother's lack of loyalty, yet the two share a sweet-natured bond, with Rosie striving to find the good kid lurking beneath Jojo's radicalism.

These early set-up moments of Jojo Rabbit are the breeziest, loaded with tons of great comedy delivered by a more than able cast. Waititi and Davis play off each other magnificently, with Davis managing to turn Jojo into a fully realized character. In Davis's hands, it's hard not to find Jojo endearing – even while he's yucking it up with Hitler and spouting off tall-tales about the evil powers Jews possess. Johansson is equally wonderful, delivering what might be one of her very best performances. Her Rosie is funny and charming, but also possessing an undeniable sadness – a melancholy derived from a world gone mad, and the hopelessness that accompanies it. Her scenes with Davis are warm and lovely – the bond between mother and son is strong and genuine.

Stephen Merchant gets big laughs as a Gestapo agent, as does Rebel Wilson as the laid-back-yet-evil Fräulein Rahm. And then there's Sam Rockwell as a Nazi captain whose seen better days. Rockwell's Captain Klenzendorf is both uproariously funny – he's almost constantly drinking and stumbling over himself – and also surprisingly thoughtful. There's more to him than meets the eye.

The same goes for Rosie, who is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Leave No Trace breakout Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic. Jojo accidentally discovers Elsa, and is immediately terrified and hateful of this potentially supernatural Jew dwelling in his house. With Hitler's urging, Jojo decides to get close to Elsa in order to disarm her – but the plan backfires. Because the more time Jojo spends with Elsa, the more he realizes that he likes her – a betrayal of his sacred wannabe Nazi beliefs.

You wouldn't think a film that actually features Hitler as a character would be so damn sweet, but Waititi manages to take his message and mold it around a good-natured spirit. Waititi could've overloaded Jojo Rabbit with timely moments meant to reflect the current hate-filled climate we find ourselves in. But Waititi is smarter than that – he realizes he doesn't need to state the obvious, and instead lets the film speak for itself. All the Nazis here are deadly and dangerous, yes – but they're also total buffoons who have stupid beliefs. The key to making this story work is Jojo's slow discovery that all of his Nazi worship has been misplaced. It's a glimmer of hope – a light in the darkness. Jojo Rabbit wants to ascribe to the belief that there's always a chance for redemption and that the best way to stamp out evil is to allow kindness to prevail.

Whether or not such a belief is true isn't important. What's important is the faith that it is. "You keep living, that is how you beat them," Rosie tells Elsa at one point. That's the ultimate message of Jojo Rabbit – just keep going. Stay alive. Keep the darkness at bay as long as you can. It might catch up with you sooner or later, but for now, you're alive – and that means you're winning.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10