He may be unpopular, but 10-year-old Jojo has all the friends he needs ... including Adolf Hitler.
OK, so that particular friendship is all in his head, but Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) — an ardent supporter of the Nazi party and a recent Hitler Youth inductee — is determined to eventually work his way to becoming the Führer's trusty second-in-command. He and his imaginary, khaki-clad, semi-mustachioed companion (Taika Waititi plays Hitler) spend their days childishly gallivanting around Jojo's small, German town, imagining the paradisaical empire that will one day thrive under the Third Reich — that is, when they aren't conspiring against those outside the Aryan race.
Then Jojo finds a Jewish girl in his attic.
Sure, he knew his loving, spirited mother (Scarlett Johansson) harbored some anti-Nazi sentiments, but he never would have guessed she'd go so far as to hide a refugee like Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). Well, no matter: He figures he's of superior descent, the strongest bloodline, and was thus born with the upper hand. But it doesn't take long for Elsa to show herself to be more fierce, more intelligent ... more human than Jojo ever would have given her credit for. And before he can do anything to stop it, the young fanatic's prejudices slowly begin to fracture, throwing his entire worldview into disarray.
Waititi — in addition to hilariously caricaturing the modern world's most famous autocrat — writes and directs "Jojo Rabbit" splendidly, taking a savagely funny look at the delusion of the Axis powers in World War II while also unafraid to expose the harrowing consequences of systemic oppression. Opting to portray a deeply problematic regime from a child's naïve perspective, the film knows and fully embraces its limitations, unafraid to keep its methods simple as well as its message: With hate there is no hope, only destruction.
Branded as an "anti-hate satire," the writer-director's vision may not accomplish the complexity of other noted lampooners, and some might consider it a missed opportunity in eschewing even somewhat explicit references to current world events. But it still lands more than its share of jabs, effectively portraying Hitler's cronies as sectarian imbeciles whose aggressive behavior is largely compensatory in nature. Almost every joke succeeds — quite a few in gut-busting fashion — thanks to the impeccably timed, snappy verbal and physical dynamic among Waititi and other supporting cast members, including Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant.
The real winners here, however, are adolescent leads Davis and McKenzie, whose relationship is the beating heart every comedy needs but most don't care to develop. From their initial blind hostility to the heart-melting rapport they eventually form, every scene they share offers an insightful, intimate look at the damaging effects of deep-seated enmity and the beauty that can emerge when it's set aside. Johansson, who isn't on-screen nearly as much as she should be, paints a delightful yet incisive portrait of empathy, an effective foil to the uniformed malcontents that populate the local government buildings.
That isn't to say that "Jojo Rabbit" is saccharine. Thanks to several major events, Jojo's belief that his political ideals are at all benign is snatched away mercilessly, resulting in genuine, knock-the-wind-out-of-you shock. Likewise, the viewer is stripped of any inkling that the film's often lighthearted demeanor excuses Nazism in any capacity — by no means does it do so.
Yet even after you're put through a ringer of eye-opening events, "Jojo Rabbit" will leave you laughing and applauding with the unmistakable flutter of hope in your chest. It's in a time that lends to ever-growing cynicism that films like this are most needed, reminding us that even at the height of its power, hate has been — and can be — overcome.
John Battiston, who screened "Jojo Rabbit" at last weekend's Middleburg Film Festival, is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.