Theodore’s Review of Jojo Rabbit

I never thought I’d say this with regards to a story about Nazis, but this was really a rather charming little film.

Jojo Rabbit is the story of a young boy living in the closing months of the Third Reich, who is fully indoctrinated into National Socialist ideology and worships Hitler as a hero, even imagining him as an invisible friend, who eventually discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in the cupboard in his sister’s bedroom. It’s an emotional story about a boy having to come to terms with the fact that what he knows isn’t reality, and a clever examination of brainwashing and resistance.

There will be, over the course of this short series of thoughts, some spoilers for the film, of course. So do be warned of that.

The film opens with young Johannes, or Jojo, as he is known, preparing to go to a weekend camp for Hitler Youth. He is very excited about this, being somewhat obsessed with the Nazi party in the way that young boys are often obsessed with their favourite things. Even in these early scenes it reads as harmless except for the object of his attentions. If Jojo were living in our time period, no doubt he’d be equally obsessed with superheroes or trains or something equally common. At the camp, after refusing to kill a rabbit despite his insistence to himself that he would make a good Nazi, Jojo is injured by a grenade and left scarred and disabled, forced to take a more domestic role in the party rather than a combat one.

It is at this time that Jojo discovers a Jewish girl named Elsa living in the cupboard in his deceased sister’s room. She is a friend of his sister who Jojo’s mother Rosie is hiding, and over the course of the film, Jojo develops a friendship with her that forces him to challenge his previously-held assumptions about the monstrosity and inhumanity of Jewish people. We also see Jojo’s relationship with his mother, who we later learn is an anti-Nazi activist, in a touching demonstration of parent-child relationships and single motherhood that one rarely sees in film.

The war begins to go worse and worse for the Nazis as the film goes on, and eventually the allies appear and conquer the city in which Jojo lives, and the war is won elsewhere. Jojo’s faith is heavily shaken by the two major events: the knowledge that his beloved Hitler has committed suicide, and the public execution of his mother for being a political dissident. After the city is liberated, Jojo leaves his house with Elsa and the two of them share a touching, friendly moment in the street.

A basic synopsis of the plot does not do much to convey the tone of this film. It is done in a very comedic style, which is hardly what one would expect given the subject matter, but rather than feeling insensitive, it works very well in making clear the insanity that had gripped people in this time period. At the same time, the film is very serious—the scene in which the Gestapo come to Jojo’s house looking for Elsa is fraught with tension even amidst the jokes that pervade it. The moment when Jojo discovers his mother’s hanging body is particularly impactful, and particularly well crafted, visually and thematically foreshadowed at several points earlier on in the film.

Jojo is without a doubt the star of the film. He is a most compelling character from whom the viewer will have a hard time looking away. He is a Nazi to be certain, but only by circumstance. As I stated earlier, it is clear that he merely wants to be part of something bigger than him—a fact pointed out over the course of the film. He is, at the heart of his character, a very lonely young man who misses his father and doesn’t have very many friends, and so fills his loneliness by participating with gusto in the most socially acceptable hobby of his day. It is very clear throughout that poor Jojo just wants a reason to spend time with other people, even imagining a violent dictator as his friend so he feels less alone.

Roman Griffin Davis, the young actor playing Jojo, is a very talented young man. Despite playing a character whose emotional expression is limited, perhaps because of his injury or his brainwashing, but more likely merely because that is what Jojo is like, Davis manages to convey a wide range of emotions without breaking character. He is earnest, charming and charismatic, and he easily draws the viewer’s attention to him in every scene. I don’t imagine this film would have worked with a much older protagonist, for I feel that Jojo’s innocence and naivete are what make it possible to sympathize with him even as he says rather horrid things—and sounds like he means them, another testament to Davis’s acting ability. It is always nice to see a promising young actor in such quality work; no doubt he will eventually grow up to be in generic and uninteresting action films as they often do, but until then I look forward to following his career.

If I may make a bold statement, albeit one that I know I am not alone in making, I applaud the director and writer for writing Jojo as a queer child. I wondered at first if I was reading into the characterization and the film’s seeming refusal to write a romantic relationship between Jojo and Elsa, despite Jojo’s occasional comment about Elsa being his girlfriend, but thinking more on it, I feel it’s very clear that Jojo is meant to be read as a gay child. The overt homoeroticism of the Nazi party that we see throughout the film and his attraction to that largely male environment conspire to make it rather clear where Jojo’s real interests lie, and to suggest why it might be so challenging for him to make friends. No doubt many of us recall difficulties in childhood relating to other children because, even if we didn’t have a name for it, we knew there was something different about us, and without ever coming out (pun not intended) and saying that, both the writing and the acting in the film makes this interpretation unavoidable, in my opinion.

In sum, I highly recommend Jojo Rabbit if you are interested in a film about explosions and violence and more about the interior feelings of a sad and lonely young person who wants to have friends.

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