By Siena Yates in Toronto
"It's a pretty bad time to be a Nazi", "I'm massively into swastikas", and "Heil Hitler!" aren't things you expect to hear people yelling and laughing about in 2019 but (in some warped way) that's the Taika Waititi effect.
Only Waititi could start a film with two characters screaming "Heil Hitler" to hype each other up before cutting to a Hitler Youth training camp and somehow making it look like a fun Wes Anderson delight.
And only Waititi could pull off playing an absurd and — dare I say — oddly lovable version of Adolf Hitler, portraying him as a childhood hero and role model while at the same time utterly renouncing everything he stands for.
All that and more, is what the Kiwi star and director has achieved with his latest film Jojo Rabbit, which premiered to a delighted crowd at the Toronto International Film Festival yesterday (NZ time).
The film, which earned Waititi a standing ovation when he took to the stage after the premiere, follows 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a proud Nazi in World War II. He desires only to serve Hitler — until he finds a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Kiwi actor Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his home. As he gets to know Elsa, Jojo begins to unpack the lies he's been fed and finally question his beliefs and loyalties.
Through Jojo, Waititi does a beautiful job of capturing the fun of childhood and adding in the absurdity of prejudice to make it look exactly as ridiculous as it is.
But he also brings the weight of the subject matter crashing down in a way only he can, in a turn of events fast becoming a recognisable trademark of his storytelling style. He took the audience from laughing to crying in seconds, masterfully pulling together elements that had been foreshadowed but which we didn't notice until they hit us.
Throughout it all Griffin Davis perfectly tackles not only Waititi's style of humour, but also the emotion at the heart of what Waititi does, and he does so with care and gravitas far beyond his years. Similarly, McKenzie portrays Elsa's quiet struggle and fierce strength with admirable ease. Waititi has cemented his directing style with Jojo Rabbit, in his aesthetic style as well as his humour and writing.
And once again, he takes a wider story and finds its pulse not in the obvious, but in relationships and coming-of-age life lessons. He applies his method of homing in on an intimate snapshot within a global event, to the point where despite a Hollywood war scene, your focus is on one child and his internal story.
Of course, his humour is firmly stamped on the film, more absurd than you bargained for, but just absurd enough to be able to make a joke out something beyond joking about, while still somehow taking it as seriously as it deserves.
One-liners and quintessentially "Taika" moments are plentiful, but they never detract from the overall thrust, even if they're not necessarily adding anything (the roles of Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen aren't needed, but are wonderful to have).
When the audience filed out of the premiere screening in Toronto, some were still wiping tears away, others still laughing over certain lines ("One, two, three: Swastika!") but all were wildly compelled by the unmatched feat of storytelling Waititi achieved with Jojo Rabbit.