Taika Waititi’s children’s fable is a wondrous achievement, a beautiful story of the primacy of love in an era of hate, and a rare edifying film that can be enjoyed and appreciated equally by parents and children. The year is 1944, and JoJo is a zealous member of the Hitler Youth at a time when for Nazi Germany, the end is nigh. So complete is JoJo’s fealty to National Socialism that he has an imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler himself (Waititi), who guides him through the insults and indignities of adolescence while keeping JoJo’s eyes on the greater menace. For Jo Jo, the former includes being a weakling in his Hitler Youth contingent, a deceased sister, and a missing father. The latter is the omni-presence of true vampires in his daily life, said vampires being Jews. Until JoJo realizes that not only does he have his own Anne Frank in residence, but his mother (Scarlett Johannson) is not the committed Nazi he once revered.
There are traces of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom in Waititi’s parable, and even a little bit of Roberto Begnigni’s Life is Beautiful, but the kitsch and pathos of those films are muted. The Nazis are broadly comic, from the disaffected leaders of Jo Jo’s Hitler Youth squad (Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen) to the local Gestapo (Stephen Merchant), to Hitler himself, a gossipy, anachronistic cartoon of a cohort who engages a brain-washed JoJo in the manner of a Valley Girl on Snapchat.
Waititi has a deft touch with child actors, a skill shown here as well as in his hilarious and moving The Hunt for the Wilderpeople. He depicts them not as precious or wise beyond their years, but rather, as they are, low on guile and high on instinct and snap judgment. Even in his film What We Do In The Shadows, Waititi treats his characters (New Zealand vampires who are the subject of an MTV-esque “The Real World”) as silly teens (though they are, of course, thousands of years old), negotiating house tensions, competition with werewolves, and the internet with easy hurt and immediate wonder. The results are always piercingly funny and clever.
Critics either explicitly or implicitly evince discomfort at the use of Hitler for such silly purposes (“a sugary fantasy in the most unlikely places…But in the process, it buries the awful truth” or “Waititi’s silly, irreverent performance takes the pomp and vigor out of the blustering Fuhrer, declawing the towering 20th century figure of hate. However, in doing so, he declaws his own satire, too”). These takes are both unsurprising and depressingly easy, but if you think Hitler is simply too monstrous to lampoon, you are forewarned.
Even if it is a bridge too far, I strongly recommend you traverse it. This is a beautiful, satisfyingly quirky coming of age film, natural and notable for its sweetness. I’m not sure if it was the best film of last year, but it is the one I enjoyed best.