There is simply no doubt whatsoever that 2019 will go down in history as the best year ever of Indy's acclaimed Heartland International Film Festival, a film festival that has long been one of the U.S.'s best kept film festival secrets but is, quite simply, no longer a secret at all.
While Heartland has long been able to snag a solid name or two each year with its outstanding prize packages and notoriously filmmaker friendly approach to the festival experience, Heartland has simply never had a year quite like it's having in 2019 under the steady leadership of President Craig Prater and recently named Artistic Director Greg Sorvig. Without tarnishing the heart in Heartland, both Prater and Sorvig have taken Heartland from an Indiana gem to a growing force among both indie and Hollywood filmmakers.
This year alone, Heartland is screening such acclaimed awards contenders as A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Marriage Story, Guest Artist, a handful of the year's most acclaimed documentaries and international films, and the film I'm reviewing here, Taika Watiti's boldly entertaining and yet pointedly insightful Jojo Rabbit.
While Heartland has been one of my own favorite film festivals since its early days and was one of the very first festivals to recognize my own professional status as a film journalist, the truth is the days are long gone when I could playfully tease them over family friendly screenings of Air Buddies complete with the dogs actually at the festival.
While Heartland still has its share of its always popular family friendly and faith-based films, this year's theme of "A Bold Cinematic Space" is even more wildly on display with its first ever horror film, In Fabric, and films like Jojo Rabbit.
So, let me start off by simply acknowledging one basic truth - Jojo Rabbit is, without question, one of my absolute favorite films of 2019. If there's any filmmaker alive who could manage to make a film set in World War II centered around a Nazi loving 10-year-old and acutally make it work, it's most likely Taika Watiti.
Somehow, he makes it all work to damn near perfection.
Having had its world premiere at TIFF alongside such films as Joker, Marriage Story, and Knives Out, Jojo Rabbit is, somehow, everything you want it to be without ever becoming what you feared it might be.
Somehow, and I'm still trying to figure out how, Waititi manages to make a Hitler-immersed narrative work in a film that gives us delightfully toe-tapping opening moments of a German-language cover of the Beatles' I Want to Hold Your Hand set against the scenery of Nationalists who've lined up the street to cheer on their führer. The scene is designed beautifully, a black-and-white musical montage setting a tone for the introduction of 10-year-old Jojo, played with stunning precision by Roman Griffin Davis. Davis manages to infuse Jojo with a quiet loneliness and underlying desperation that at least gives us an inkling of what draws him to membership inside the Bund deutscher Arbeiterjugend, or Hitler Youth, which has a summer camp run by Sam Rockwell's Captain “K” Klenzendorf where the young outcast will learn about grenades and weapons and hunting. While he's not particularly good at any of these things, for Jojo this opportunity represents his opportunity to prove his masculinity no matter the cost.
Of course, there's always a cost and that's not something that Waititi's flamboyant and fabulous and funny script shies away from at all.
Aided by Ra Vincent's fantasy like production design, Waititi crafts a world for Jojo that doesn't feel far removed from those days in the 70's and 80's when nearly every teenager had magazine posters on their bedroom walls of Shawn Cassidy or Farrah Fawcett or any number of other teen idols. It just so happens that the teen idol in this case is, well, Adolf Hitler.
If it sounds like it's played for laughs, that's a massive over-simplification.
Scarlett Johansson gives one of her best performances to date as Jojo's mother, Rosie, a kind-hearted soul who raised her son to be a kind-hearted soul who seems to do an almost primal flinch every time her son recites Nazi rhetoric yet refuses to abandon the young boy she knows her son to be. It's a rather magnificent performance, certainly an award-worthy one, as Johansson's natural dry humor mixes well with Davis's youthful temper tantrums and glaring immaturity.
Waititi himself is gloriously inspired as Hitler, flamboyant yet quietly frightening and uncomfortably funny. It's hard to watch him without recognizing his behaviors as nothing short of grooming the young Jojo, his charismatic paternalism vacillating somewhere between faux sincerity, clown-like lunacy, and I'd dare say Gacy-like quiet rages in moments when Jojo starts to shun him.
Waititi never allows us the opportunity to forget Jojo's naivete, yet it's also important to note that Waititi never dismisses Jojo's actions because of that naivete. There are consequences to our choices and, young or not, there will be consequences to Jojo's actions as well.
A good majority of Jojo Rabbit centers around the ways in which Jojo has conveniently assigned stereotypes and labels to Jewish people, an approach that goes so far as trying to write a book about how to tell Jews from Christians that he plans to give to Hitler himself. His world is turned upside down when he discovers that his beloved mother, whom he does dearly love, is hiding a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), and Elsa begins to confront and challenge Jojo's firmly implanted stereotypes and beliefs in ways that truly impact the young boy.
There are no truly easy answers in Jojo Rabbit and Waititi wisely refuses to let anyone off the hook easily including one 10-year-old young boy. Waititi is a master at tonal shifts and variation and Jojo Rabbit shifts dramatically into territory that is rather profoundly serious once Jojo is confronted with the reality that doing the right thing can have significant consequences. Jojo is forced to grow up rather quickly over the course of the film, a transition that Davis plays beautifully and one that is completely and utterly believable and at times heartbreaking.
Among the supporting players, Thomasin McKenzie is quite good throughout while both Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson shine as one would expect. Michael Giacchino's original score is simply extraordinary and Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s lensing for the film wonderfully captures the film's richest humor and deepest emotions with equal perfection.
A few years ago, Heartland International Film Festival began their journey toward edgier fare with what remains one of my favorite films of all-time - Craig Gillespie's Ryan Gosling starring Lars and the Real Girl. It was the kind of film that Heartland had never seen before, yet it was a beautifully Heartland type of film through and through.
There's no question that Heartland enters a bold cinematic space with a film like Jojo Rabbit, yet there's also no doubt whatsoever that Jojo Rabbit is a Heartland film through and through. While marketing for the film hasn't quite captured the true essence of the film, Jojo Rabbit is a rather remarkable work of wonder and continues building upon Waititi's growing reputation as one of the finest and most dependable filmmakers working today whether he's tackling a low-budget indie or a franchise tentpole.
Jojo Rabbit is damn near a masterpiece. You should see it.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic