Jojo
Credit: VIFF

It’s always somewhat bittersweet when brilliant indie directors get a tap on the shoulder from Hollywood to helm the next big instalment of the “(insert company here) Universe.”

You’re happy that they’re getting recognized for their work, and hopeful that it will lead to a higher standard of blockbuster. But you’re disappointed that their days of making scrappy films with progressive ideas and avant garde concepts appear to be over.

Thankfully, Taika Waititi defies convention.

The New Zealand director and writer came to fame with works like 2010’s Boy, about an 11-year-old Michael Jackson fanatic and What We Do in the Shadows (2014), a mockumentary about a group of vampires who hang out together.

So when Waititi got tapped to direct Thor: Ragnarok in 2017 (and absolutely knocked it out of the park, infusing the Marvel fare with his particular brand of humour), many thought his days writing and directing original stories might be finished.

With the release of Jojo Rabbit (hitting theatres October 18), those fears can be put to rest.

The film, written and directed by Waititi certainly indulges its creator’s most wacky instincts. Set in Germany near the tail end of World War II, it follows a 10-year-old boy named Jojo (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis) who hopes to fight for Adolf Hitler in the war. He also happens to employ the führer as an imaginary friend (played by Waititi) who, naturally, gives him some terrible advice.

Unbeknownst to Jojo, however, his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace) in the attic.

Waititi’s irreverent humour carries most of the first half of the film—until things start to turn decidedly unfunny. But Jojo is deft at switching gears—it can mine difficult situations for humour and build characters and plot even while the audience guffaws.

It doesn’t hurt that Waititi has assembled an all-star cast here, which also includes Sam Rockwell, Stephen Merchant and Rebel Wilson. Clearly, those Marvel movies are introducing the director to some people (Johansson, Rockwell and Merchant have all starred in the studio’s films). 

And while Waititi predictably brings the laughs (he stole the show in Ragnarok to the point that his character made an appearance in Avengers: Endgame) as a deluded, over-the-top Hitler, it’s the two young actors that leave a lasting impression.

Holding his own in a film full of huge characters, Davis is sensational. He’s in nearly every scene and is able to bring both expert comedic timing and real drama to the tale. Likewise, McKenzie is excellent, and the two youngsters have clearly built some genuine chemistry.   

As for the story itself: yes, it’s going to offend some people. And it’ll make you uncomfortable too. Waititi plays things like characters repeatedly greeting each other with “Hail, Hitler” and matter-of-factly defining Jewish people as garbage for comedy.

It worked on a sold-out Vancouver Film Festival audience, who gave the film healthy applause at the credits. But it can be a touch unnerving. If you’re not ready to laugh at Nazis (the film bills itself as "anti-hate satire"), then maybe don’t seek this one out.

But if you think Inglourious Basterds would be better off as a comedy, then this is the film for you.