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The Hand of God (2021)

For writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning 2013 film The Great Beauty, of which I was a great fan, I wrote: “It’s a bawdy, beautiful, and entertaining film but one that also takes its time, luxuriates in atmosphere… The film is far more free-floating and meditative … I felt like I could celebrate the absurdities and joys of life along with the people onscreen. It’s existential without being laboriously pretentious, and the comedy and stylish flourishes help anchor the entertainment.” Most of those words still apply to 2021’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama, The Hand of God, so why does it feel less appealing this time? We follow a young man in 1980s Naples and his large, boisterous, very Italian family. It’s a movie of moments, several extended vignettes, and it sadly doesn’t add up to much for me. I think that’s because the young protagonist is too blank to care about. He’s a surrogate for the filmmaker, but you never get a sense of his passions or interests or even personality. It’s a movie of people talking to and at him, so it’s hard to work up much emotion for his triumphs and perseverence. There are some memorable parts, like his awkward deflowering to an older woman, and a tragic turn halfway through that sneaks up on you. The life lessons are familiar for the well-trod territory, and the personal details of the era, the community, the 1982 World Cup (where we get the title from) feel richly realized as Sorrentino’s gauzy nostalgia. It’s just that Sorrentino’s ratio of interesting to ponderous moments has tilted into the negative this time. The Hand of God is overlong, free-floating, occasionally beautiful and frustratingly inaccessible.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Petite Maman (2021)

There are two things to know about the deeply heartfelt new French movie, Petite Maman. The first is that it’s the follow-up by Celine Sciamma, the writer and director of one of 2019’s absolute best movies, the sumptuously romantic, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. That was reason enough to watch this relatively short movie. The next is a twist that I’ll save for the body of this review but that makes this childhood examination on loss, grief, and the future far more compelling and emotionally striking. It’s further proof to me that Sciamma is one of the best filmmakers out there and that her devotion to story and human emotion is paramount; just as I was enveloped in the romantic swell of Portrait, I was charmed and enchanted by this wholesome movie that’s so winsome that you could watch with the whole family, that is, if you can convince children to watch a 75-minute French drama with you, and if so, congrats.

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is mourning the recent loss of her grandmother. She and her mother and father have camped to grandma’s old home to pack it up. Everyone is sad and one day Nelly’s mother leaves without warning. She doesn’t know when mom is coming back. In the meantime, Nelly makes a friend with a neighbor girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). She’s living with her mother and nervous about an upcoming operation to fix a genetic malady. However, in the meantime, these two little girls find solace in playing with one another, building a fort in the woods, and creating role play scenarios that allow each to hone their acting skills. Over the course of a few days, Nelly learns to understand her family more while learning to say goodbye on her own terms.

I’ll save the spoilers for the next paragraph because I feel like they are unavoidable to truly get at what makes this movie special. One non-spoiler merit of this movie is how persuasively it is told from the perspective of childhood. Our little eight-year-old heroine is the protagonist, and we see the world from her understanding. That doesn’t mean the movie ever leans on narration or a reality-bending imaginative framework; it’s simply told with the understanding of what it’s like to be a child with questions and emotions that you don’t quite know how to handle. There’s a beguiling innocence with the movie that makes it so wholesome and sweet. As an adult, it’s not too difficult to remember your understanding of the world as a child, let alone family relationships, especially in the aftermath of bereavement. Nelly is forlorn because she didn’t know her last exchange with her grandmother would be their final interaction, and that ache is relatable no matter the age. Nobody knows when their last interaction with a loved one could be, so it’s easy to feel that same lament that more wasn’t made to achieve a better sense of closure. There’s a sweet moment between Nelly and her mother where they role play what that final exchange could have been, and all Nelly wishes is to say goodbye one more time but with more forceful feelings behind the words, and it was a moment so pure and innocent. The entire movie is like this moment, a lingering earnest sensation that is universal and expertly delicate.

Here comes the spoilers, so dear reader be aware if you still want to remain as pure as this movie, although I would argue knowing this spoiler ahead of time will improve your movie-going experience by giving you a necessary part of the puzzle. Petite Maman translates to “Little Mother” and it’s more than simply little kids pretending to be adults. It turns out that Marion is actually the eight-year-old version of Nelly’s mother, and her house they retreat to after playing in the woods is an older version of Nelly’s grandmother’s home. There are clues early, like the same distinct wallpaper and interior design of the house, but you might be able to dismiss that as maybe there are just similar houses being built in this neighborhood. After a while, though, you start to realize there’s more going on here, and the movie doesn’t treat you like an idiot. Nelly flat out tells Marion that she is her child from a future. From there, the movie becomes a fully felt inter-generational bonding experience, where daughter gets to talk to her mother on her own level, answer questions for her curious young mother, and they talk about dealing with sadness as they know it. When Marion asks if Nelly was planned, she says yes, and Marion says, “That makes sense. I can’t stop thinking about you already,” and tears come to my eyes even typing the words. This twist brings so much more meaning to everyday activities; instead of Nelly staying one last night to make pancakes with her new friend, now it’s Nelly having only one more opportunity to bond with her mother when they’re both at the same age, saying goodbye while telling her how much she loves her, not knowing if when they part that she may even see her adult mother again. Wow, that is so much going on. Nelly even gets another shot to find that closure with her grandmother.

The two young actresses are twin sisters, and both are terrific. Given the gentle nature of the movie, neither is given any great moment where they tearfully break down, shout their feelings, or chew the scenery in general. These feel like real kids dealing with real emotions under some unique circumstances. Each of the Sanz sisters is a delight and realistically subdued and not just poor actors incapable of effectively showing emotion. When Nelly and Marion are play acting a scene, with one pretending to be an investigator interrogating the other as a suspect, they both have a twinkle to them as they admire each other’s acting ability, saying they should become an actress. It’s a nice moment for each of the Sanz sisters because they’re living their own dreams in the scene.

Petite Maman is a special movie and one that doesn’t feel like a frame is wasted. Even at only 75 minutes in length, its compassion and sweetness are eminently felt and appreciated. My only regret is that we could have had more time together with these two and to develop even more, but it almost seems like its own commentary on life and our relationships itself. We always are left wanting more, never knowing when one last hug or joke will be the last, and so savor the human experiences we have, the cherished memories earned, the gamut of emotions shared, and enjoy what we have.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Belfast (2021)

Kenneth Branagh returns to his boyhood home with Belfast, a coming of age story set during the Troubles in 1969 where Protestant mobs were targeting Irish Catholics. The movie is partly autobiographical as we follow young Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) and his parents (Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe) and grandparents (Cirian Hinds, Judi Dench) dealing with life as their neighborhood block more resembles a war zone. There are dangerous influences and dark intentions on the peripheral, but we’re mostly at kid level, where his days are preoccupied with sitting closer to his crush in school and wanting to impress his older cousin and be accepted. The parental perspective is kept to offhand whsipers and weighty conversations about moving away or staying behind. The black and white photography is gorgeous and exquisitely composed, looking like old family photos come to rich life. The actors are charming and heartfelt, and when called upon deliver emotional fury. The problem with Belfast, and it feels mean to even cite it as such, is that everything is just a little too nice, a little too clean, a little too safe. The childhood perspective doesn’t quite jibe with the political instability at hand. It’s not a Jojo Rabbit where that disconnect is the point for reflection. It’s clearly Branagh’s love letter to his family and native land. It feels like entire scenes have been plucked directly from Branagh’s nostalgic memories. It also feels like the characters are more sweet-smiling composites than real people. It’s all been romanticized with Branagh’s personal nostalgia, reshaping the odd angles and dangling conflicts into something more sentimentally safe, easy, and inoffensively digestible. Belfast is a perfectly enjoyable movie but it feels like a simple TV movie-of-the-week, crowd-pleasing version of a complex story worthy of greater nuance and scrutiny.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Tender Bar (2021)

When adapting a memoir into a movie, it’s important to ask whether the subject has lived an interesting life that people would want to see. With The Tender Bar, based on the 2006 memoir by journalist JR Moehringer, I think the filmmakers lost sight of this. Young JR has elements of an interesting personal experience; his father, a famous radio DJ, has been absent for his whole life yet JR still pines for him while listening to the radio (the father is simply referred to as “The Voice”); his mother goes through chemotherapy for cancer; his grandfather, whom he and his mother have been forced to move back home to live with, is suffering from dementia; his uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) runs the local bar and pushes JR to read mountains of classic literature in order to become a better writer. Any of those elements could be further explored and mined for relatable human drama and bittersweet coming-of-age lessons. That’s not what The Tender Bar does. Strangely, it cavalierly jumps around these plot points, never really settling on one for long, only braiding them together in a way that feels fleeting and stalled for building momentum. The choice of mixing in non-linear flash forwards and flashbacks (as well as a narrator) complicates matters and feels like the adaptation was struggling to relay the info it needed. Too much of this movie dwells on the least interesting part of this story, namely JR falling in love with a girl in college who repeatedly dumps him. It’s so frustrating to watch especially when we have more interesting scenarios passed up just to watch this dumb kid get his heart broken by this same girl for the umpteenth time. I wish JR had just remained a youngster and we could have focused on his real father figure shaping him, his uncle, and their time spent running the local watering hole. Mysteriously, this movie is directed by George Clooney, who shows no real affinity for the story or its characters. The movie is generally warm and gauzy but bereft of significant personal details to make the drama more resonant. It’s like you took a coming-of-age story and melted it down to its most recognizable base components. The Tender Bar is assuredly a case where the appeal of the novel must have been from the voice of its author. The story, at least presented onscreen, is a wistful shrug of a movie with an above-average Affleck performance. It’s a nice but dull experience, which is likely an apt description of most ordinary people’s lives.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Luca (2021)

Pixar’s second straight direct-to-Disney-plus outing, Luca, is a decidedly lesser movie from the creative powerhouse. It’s more in keeping with the low stakes and minimal characterization of something like the Cars franchise or Monster’s University. It has its gentle charms and important themes about acceptance, accessibility, and identity, but Luca feels a bit too shallow and lacking in magic. Two sea monster boys want to feel the thrill and freedom of living on land, and it just so happens they transform into looking like humans as long as they don’t get wet. They must learn the ways of blending in, keep their secret, and win the local triathlon to achieve their dream of owning a Vespa scooter. Yes, ostensibly it’s about two kids, and a third once they become friends with a rambunctious redheaded girl in town, wanting to win a race to get a scooter, and you can see the larger theme about friendship and self-acceptance in the name of intolerance, but the movie feels like Ponyo meets The Little Mermaid with the setting of Call Me By Your Name (with maybe some of its coming-of-age queer coding?). The movie barely gets to 84 minutes long, pre-credits, and even that feels very lackadaisical and padded, stretching a thin storyline with minimal development. The animation is expectantly gorgeous and colorful, the lovely daubs of light are so soothing to watch, though I didn’t care for the Gravity Falls-style character designs. The stakes are low and personal but I didn’t really care about the broad characters. There are some fun farcical hijinks trying to hide their monster selves from being seen, and the conclusion has a sweet message without being overtly sentimental, but Luca is little more than a fitfully amusing yet slight seaside vacation for your hungry eyes.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Cuties (2020)

A new Netflix movie is tearing through the Internet, igniting accusations of glorifying child porn, accusing Netflix employees of pedophilia, and triggering some to even cancel their subscriptions. Even if you’ve never watched Cuties you have probably heard something about it through the controversy that has inflamed innumerable conversations and condemnation. Cuties is a French drama that follows a young 11-year-old Amy (Falthia Toussouf) as she embarks on a new school. Her religious Muslim family has set her up for one way of life, but the popular girls at her school look so much more free, fun, and wild. The “Cuties” dance team dreams of stardom, envies the older teen dance team, and emulates salacious dance moves from videos. It’s easy to see why the movie has generated its controversy and it’s understandable why many people would ever refuse to watch it based on subject matter alone. No matter the artistic merit, watching kids behaving this way, and the natural discomfort it produces, can be too much to endure. However, for those willing to give Cuties a chance, I do think it has some artistic merit as it tells, what is essentially, a familiar story of a youth going down a wayward path of temptation and rebellion.

There are three standout moments to me in Cuties that exemplify what writer/director Maïmouna Doucouré was going for as well as the commentary attached to the controversy. I’ll be going into spoilers to discuss these scenes and why I think it adds up to a whole that has more thoughtful intentions than exploiting children for cheap buzz and leering perversion.

1) Early on, like around the ten-minute mark, Amy is dancing and hides under her mother’s bed to not get in trouble. Her mother walks around with the Great Aunt and she overhears their conversation and learns some upsetting news. Her father, who is away and yet to move back with the family, will be marrying a second wife and bringing her home. The mother is trying to put on a brave face and play her part, calling relatives to dutifully inform them about the development, but she is clearly devastated and wracked with emotion. She feels replaced and inadequate and harmed by the man she loves, and Amy registers the pain and degradation her mother is going through on a deeply personal level, and this is what serves as motivation for her later actions. When she’s making new friends and wearing crop tops and pushing her boundaries, it’s not just a young Muslim girl who wants to escape the conservative trappings of her culture; it’s a young girl who is looking to rebel and stick it to her father. Her sense of a woman’s place in this family is to be subservient to the man and his authority, and she’s angry with him, angry at causing her mother pain, angry at viewing her as a collectible, and angry at what she views is a culture that restricts her to a life she does not want for herself but worries may not have a choice. Again, this isn’t a judgment on all Muslim families but merely the relationships within this one. This overheard phone call is such an immediately powerful scene with such an emotional wallop that I was tearing up. Amy’s motivation is more complex than simply wanting to dress provocatively. She’s rejecting a fate that could as easily befall her, and in doing so, a viewpoint on women.

2) There is a moment where the girl gang is just hanging out in the woods and laughing. One girl, Coumba (Esther Gohourou), finds a deflated condom on the ground. Not thinking anything of it, she blows it up like a balloon and the other girls freak out. They declare that their friend is now tainted, gross, and possibly exposed to AIDS. Coumba, who was the loudest and most outspoken joker among the group, is frozen in embarrassment. She didn’t know what it really was because she’s simply a child. She had no real conception, and now that reminder and the embarrassment and the hysteria from her friends is making her feel so small and humiliated. She’s desperate for her friends to excuse this misstep, to be accepted by her peer circle once again, and she meekly defends her ignorance. A single tear rolls down her cheek and this scene was a fitting reminder for me that the filmmakers have never forgotten that these girls, no matter how they dress and how they act, are still very much children. They talk about sex and porn but through an uninformed understanding of the larger meaning and context let alone sense of anatomical accuracy. It’s because they’re still children! This moment was further confirmation for me that the filmmakers had not forgotten that their subjects were to be presented thoughtfully. These 11-year-olds aren’t to be sexualized, just like teenagers shouldn’t be either, no matter how eager these young people are to jump ahead in maturity and be seen as desirous and incendiary.

3) The last scene of the movie involves the father’s wedding, a moment that mother and daughter have been dreading. Amy has run away from her dance team’s big show and made her choice, choosing to return to her family and as a support for her mother. She reminds Amy that she does not have to attend the wedding but Amy is determined to be there, knowing fully what it means for her mother and the larger implications for her family. Amy must decide what to wear for the festivity and stares down the traditional dress her Great Aunt had brought. Amy looks at her skimpy dance outfit, a guaranteed attention-seeking statement if she were to wear it to her father’s wedding ceremony. Instead, she chooses a middle path and simply wears a comfortable sweatshirt and some blue jeans. She rejects the restrictions of her family’s conservative culture, she rejects the extremes of the dance troupe, and she starts to form her own sense of self. She sidles into a game of jump rope and the camera pans up, and as the camera moves so too does Amy, locked into the camera shot, rising above the world, and she’s smiling so broad that her face seems to glow with happiness, a relief and joy she hasn’t felt in some time. By the end of this tale, our heroine has rebelled, overstepped, learned something about herself, and now seems a little surer of who she wants to be as a young woman charting her life in France. For me, this conclusion reaffirms the intentions of the filmmakers and commentary that those feelings of discomfort were on purpose.

With that being said, there were of course scenes that made me feel deeply uncomfortable, and I would question anyone who didn’t feel the same. The Cuties’ final dance is shockingly adult. Children should not be behaving in this manner but, and I again I stress this, that is the point of the movie. The audience at the dance competition does not approve of the tween twerking; they boo, they make disgusted faces, and one mother attempts to cover her baby’s eyes. “THIS IS TOTALLY NOT A GOOD THING,” Doucouré’s film is vociferously pronouncing. When the girls are simply dancing, her camera favors wide angles or framing that doesn’t ogle their bodies. Often dances will be seen as a whole or with shoulders-and-up framing. Whenever the girls film their dances, the camera adopts the intended lascivious emulation they seek, lingering more on butts in shorts and their attempt at sensual gazes they’ve adopted from Instagram influencers and aspiring models. It’s icky but it’s only a sampling compared to the in-your-face final dance performance. What I’m trying to articulate is that the portrayal of these young girls letting loose is more tasteful than the detractors have given Cuties credit for. I’ve seen scuzzy teen-centric movies (notably by Larry Clark) where the camera was continuously fetishizing its teenage subjects as a default setting. Cuties isn’t that until it really wants to grind its cautionary message into your horrified face as you try to shield your eyes.

I had a student ask why did it have to be 11-year-olds, why couldn’t the same message have been told through slightly older figures, maybe 15 or 16-year-olds, and I didn’t have an answer. Maybe because we’ve already seen “teens go bad” movies with 16 years-olds (Kids), or even presumably 13-year-olds (Thirteen), and maybe Doucouré felt she needed to go younger to be different, or push the envelope, or to grab attention from an increasingly blasé public. Maybe the filmmaker felt we needed to go to an age before puberty so it’s less a “becoming a woman” transition and more a constant of being acknowledged as a child. I cannot say. At its core, Cuties doesn’t have to be a story that is told from a particular age because it’s a formula that we’re familiar with and it embodies universal themes of acceptance, isolation, rebellion, and belonging. It’s a better movie than the alarmist defenders of childhood virtue claim (funny how these same defenders seem so quiet in supporting a president who literally bragged about spying on tween girls while they changed clothes, but that’s another discussion). I would also advise these same critics to look up how many season Toddlers and Tiaras ran for on TV. This is not the best movie. If you’ve seen enough teen movies you’ve likely seen this story already, but Cuties is a perfectly fine movie with enough artistic merit and social commentary to potentially make it worth sitting through the obvious discomfort. I can completely understand if any person would choose to pass on this movie but it would be better if more people actually gave it a chance before sharpening those pitchforks.

Nate’s Grade: B

Wendy (2020)

I was not a big fan of writer/director Benh Zeitlin’s first movie, 2012’s indie darling and surprise Oscar contender, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Some choice highlights from my mixed review include: “This movie is awash in all sorts of tones and storylines, failing to cohesively gel together or form some kind of meaningful message…. [it] offers half-formed ideas, strange, conflicting imagery, and characters that are rather thinly written and barely register… This is just a swampy mess of a movie, one that sinks under the weight of its own pretensions. It’s admirable from a technical standpoint but, as a movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an exercise in eclectic indie navel-gazing.” So as you can see, I wasn’t exactly heartbroken that Zeitlin took eight years for his follow-up, Wendy, a loose reinterpretation of the Peter Pan story. It has many of the same flaws as Beasts and not enough of its few virtues, which means Wendy is its own lost movie experience.

We follow a group of children from a working-class diner waitress in small-town Louisiana. They watch the trains speed by on the neighboring tracks and dream of far-off adventures. Wendy (Devin France) and her two younger twin brothers (Gage and Gavin Naqui) sneak off one night onto a passing train and meet Peter (Yashua Mack), a boy who promises to guide them to a magical island where they will never grow old as long as they believe in Mother, the spirit of the island and embodied as a giant glowing fish. Wendy enjoys the freedom but worries if she’ll ever see her mother again and if this extended excursion is worth that level of sacrifice.

Maybe I’m just going through Peter Pan fatigue or maybe this latest variation on the mythology of J.M. Barrie just failed to provide any really thorough message, theme, or entry point of interest for me. Wendy seems to be going for whimsy and flights of fancy, once again attaching its perspective to that of children escaping into the realm of fantasy as a means of avoiding the hardships of their impoverished lives and what it means to be a working stiff (one child in the opening runs away at the prospect of becoming “a mop and broom man”). It’s meant to be diverting but it’s never really that exciting or involving, tapping into a wellspring of awe. There’s a beautifully idyllic island and a volcano, and of course our magic fish, but there aren’t nearly enough genuine magical elements to convey that desired whimsy. The freedom of a life without adults seems less free when there’s less to do. Much of the movie feels closer to The Florida Project where a group of poor kids are playing around junk to keep from being bored. This Neverland universe feels very limited as far as what can be done. They run around, they pretend, there are even some decrepit buildings, but what else? There isn’t really a society here in concert with our lost children and former lost children. It’s a pretty empty island retreat.

Perhaps that was Zeitlin’s goal, to strip away the romanticized notions we attach to forever staying young, chasing the fleeting feeling of the past while ignoring the present and adulthood, but this more critical theme doesn’t come across thoroughly either. There is one interesting aspect of the island’s unexplained magic and that is the older adults are former lost boys and girls who lost faith in Mother, thus activating their advanced aging and expulsion from Peter’s posse. I like the idea that the future villainous pirates of a Neverland are former lost boys; it gives an interesting personal dynamic for Peter. These adults, though, want to go back to being young again and they are convinced that killing Mother will achieve this, and it doesn’t go as planned. The deconstruction of fantasy with real violence doesn’t work because the consequences aren’t at the same level of realism. A child, in an effort to avoid growing old, makes a drastic decision, but the brushed-off aftermath makes the insertion of the harsher violence feel perfunctory. Peter is portrayed as an idealist leader one moment and ignorant and selfish the next, even with Wendy scolding him that there’s nothing wrong with growing up and becoming an adult, despite the mixed message of the former lost boys. The movie concludes with a goofy sing-a-long for magic resolution purposes that is played so earnestly that it makes it hard for me to believe Zeitlin was intending to be too critical of his magical world.

Is Wendy about rejecting adulthood or the unavoidable perils of rejecting adulthood? I cannot say because the themes are so muddled with such a precious lack of significant storytelling content. Once again, a Zeitlin film feels like an improvised series of redundant scenes, where we watch kids play fight, we watch kids yell at one another, we watch kids run, we watch kids swim, all with headache-inducing handheld camerawork, but do we get to know these kids on a deeper level where they feel like people rather than figures? The plot of Wendy, written by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, is very unclear about the rules of its magical world, which makes for a hard time to understand why anything is really happening. It also makes the movie less fun to experience because we don’t get to play along with the discovery of a fantasy world, its new parameters, and how we can develop and complicate them (not that there’s really much to discover; Neverland gets old quickly). This is definitely a movie that’s meant to convey more in feeling and inference, so the plot beats are very inconsequential outside of a few key movements. I didn’t find myself caring about any of the kids and their general well-being, even after they take it upon themselves to make some rash medical decisions. Wendy is our best realized character as she at least seems conflicted about the appeal and consequences of staying young indefinitely. The others are easily replaceable.

Wendy isn’t a bad movie and it’s clearly a very personally designed project from Zeitlin given the years of preparation. It has consistently gorgeous photography by Sturla Brandth Grovlen, the first film production shot on location on Montserrat island, and the score by Dan Romer (Maniac, Atypical) excels at the big swooning, churning melodies that crescendo into triumphant bliss. But even these positive technical qualities can only distract you momentarily from the missing center of Wendy, the story and characters and themes and discernible messages. I’m not asking for my entertainment to spoon-feed me what to think and feel from my art, but having a consistent message, or even an accessible entry point to decode and debate the art would help, as would engaging characters and a plot that felt more meaningful than just another disposable color to blend into a murky abstract mess of childhood whimsy, magic realism, and coming-of-age themes. A little of Wendy goes a long way, and two hours gets quite tedious. I just cannot foresee people falling under the spell of this movie. I wrote that Beasts had “half-formed ideas, strange, conflicting imagery, and characters that are rather thinly written and barely register,” and this much is also true with Wendy. I also wrote that Beasts was “an exercise in eclectic indie navel-gazing,” and this much is also true with Wendy. Maybe I’m just not the right fit for a Benh Zeitlin film. This is two hours of kids running around on an island without supervision and the occasional Peter Pan element thrown in. Maybe that sounds like a grand retreat as a viewer but it made me happy to be an adult and leave.

Nate’s Grade: C

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Writer/director Taika Waititi has played a vampire, an intergalactic rock monster, and now perhaps the most challenging role of his career, Adolf Hitler. Coming off his meteoric success with the MCU, Waititi is using the time in between mega-budget Thor sequels to write/direct/produce/co-star in a smaller daring indie comedy. Jojo Rabbit follows a young German boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Dais), during the last year of World War Two. He fantasizes about having an imaginary Hitler (Waititi) as the voice over his shoulder, reinforcing the teachings of adults and authority figures. His worldview is challenged when he discovers a teenager hiding in the family’s walls who just happens to be Jewish. Jojo doesn’t know what to make of Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), nor does she know what to make of him, and Jojo decides to keep her presence a secret to spare his doting and put-upon mother (Scarlet Johansson). Jojo tries interrogating this wily girl but ends up learning more than he ever imagined.

Given the subject matter, setting, and overall tone, it’s a wonder how well Jojo Rabbit works. I was worried about what kind of tone the movie would be striving for given the delicacy of its subject matter, not that other filmmakers have shied away from incorporating comedy into Holocaust settings. I don’t mean this to be overly flippant but for portions of the movie I felt like I was watching “Wes Anderson’s Nazi Germany.” The entire Act One camp sequence feels like a warped deleted scene from Moonrise Kingdom. I was genuinely surprised how often I was laughing with Jojo Rabbit. Waititi can be hysterical as a bratty, temperamental version of the Fuhrer, but there are moments where he gets caught up in the oratory of his hateful rhetoric that serve as a reminder that even for Jojo, he realizes this man isn’t exactly best friend material. The Hitler imaginary friend goes away for long stretches in the second half as the film emphasizes more drama, which is the right choice as Jojo is coming to doubt what he has been taught from that imaginary friend. The portrayal of Hitler might be offensive to some viewers but I feel like Waititi walks a fine line to root it from the perspective of childhood fantasy. It’s taking the figure on TV and adapting it to suit the needs of a lonely kid wanting to belong. Of course he’d want Hitler to select him as the best little young Aryan that Germany has going. It’s not dismissing the evil of the man but instead serving him up through a specific prism that allows laughter not necessarily even at Hitler himself but at a youthful and immature understanding of something far more complex.

I was also worried that the comedy might dampen some of the more dramatic turns coming, and this was so not the case. There are dramatic moments hiding under the surface thanks to seeing them from Jojo’s naïve perspective, but then there also big obvious dramatic moments of suffering that hit. As much as the whimsy prevails early, the dramatic moments are delivered in tasteful ways that do not detract from the feelings being felt by the characters as well as the willing viewers. There are a few gut punches that remind you that even with the whimsy of childhood naivete, real people are dying in awful ways because of those complicit in racist genocidal policies. The relationship between Jojo and his mother is the second most significant one, after he and Elsa, but it’s this central focus where we see the starting point of his character arc. His mother tries to shield her child from the larger terrors of their society but that’s increasingly difficult when people are being hanged in the street for helping Jews. She’s hoping to simply play her part in public, get through this terrible time, and finally have the son back that she knows, hoping he will eventually shake free from the propaganda. It’s a role that requires Johansson to play like another cartoonish adult, all bubbling energy and quirky nonchalance, while burying her increasing concern. Part of me almost wishes that she was a co-equal protagonist so we could get an even richer perspective to contrast more fully.

There’s a sprightly whimsy to the proceedings that comes from being locked into the perspective of an imaginative child. It’s not that the world is 100 percent his vision, it’s more that we know that the representation of what we’re seeing might not be a completely objective reflection of the reality Jojo is encountering. This especially includes the portrayal of many adults involved in various levels of the Nazi party. They play out like cartoons and buffoons but are still dangerous cartoons and buffoons. When Jojo’s childhood friend Yorki is talking about fighting on the front and we see him handling a rocket launcher, this is clearly an exaggeration of the desperation of the moment and a young boy’s eagerness to be involved. This creative approach allows Waititi to dabble in the fantastic and keep his audience alert, allowing them to second-guess what we’re seeing on screen and look for the reality in hiding. I laughed pretty consistently at the intended humor and incredulous nature of the adults trying to pass off wrongheaded insights and suggestions as scientific fact or common sense. It’s a movie where you laugh at the ridiculous idiots while hoping that the idiots won’t get the people we care about killed.

The acting is very strong overall. Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis is exuberant and relatable without coming across as overly cloying or mannered, which can be a rarity for child actors. He has a very difficult role to play from a tone and perspective standpoint, and he succeeds. Another great child actor is Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) as Elsa, a young girl in an extremely vulnerable position who looks upon this new boy with equal amounts fear, disdain, and pity. She cannot be herself and must choose her words and responses carefully, so it’s a guarded performance of restraint but McKenzie is fabulous in quieter, subtler shifts. The adults are all enjoyable as broadly comical cartoons, with Stephen Merchant (Logan) earning considerable unease as an S.S. officer leading a team sweeping for Jews in hiding. Johansson (Avengers: Endgame) seems a little too eager, a little too antic, but this may pertain to her character’s nerves and desperation, trying to overcompensate her anxiety. Rockwell (Vice) gets the biggest adult role as a disenchanted military vet who sees the writing on the wall. At first his detached nihilism is a source of dark comedy and later he becomes an unexpected father figure for Jojo. I don’t quite know if his hero moments have the desired impact but he’s still an amusing presence.

However, there are also some drawbacks to being a fable, namely a lack of larger specific substance beyond general lessons and general characterization. Jojo Rabbit is being billed as an “anti-hate satire” and I definitely think that summary fits the intent, but “anti-hate” sounds like such a nebulous buzzword that seems more meaningful at first glance and less upon reflection. I would assume every responsible story set during the era of the Holocaust would adopt an “anti-hate” sensibility, because the alternative would be championing the foundations of Nazism. It’s hard for me to imagine any movie desiring a public release being anything other than “anti-hate.” Essentially, we have a character coming to see through the propaganda of the era, judging people as people rather than scary caricatures, and start to reject the teachings of manipulative authority figures. This isn’t a new formula for coming-of-age stories or tales set during times of great strife. It’s a lesson in empathy and rejecting dogma on its face. When it comes to Nazism, that should be the easy part, facilitated by any prolonged exposure to anyone previously deemed an undesirable.

My nagging issue with Jojo Rabbit is that for all its impish whimsy with such a serious historical subject, it ultimately plays things pretty safe. That’s fine, it doesn’t have to a revolutionary film, but it does dull the message a bit when the ultimate lasting takeaway is “hate is bad, Jews are people too.” It’s a bit pat, a bit simple, and a bit too easy. The characterization can also be hampered by this same ethos. The characters are pretty much exactly what you see at first blush. The only character who changes or has room to explore is Jojo. Even Elsie feels more like a stagnant person despite her unique circumstances. This may be because she’s more change agent than character, a figure for Jojo to be horrified by, then entranced with, and finally see as a friend. I still felt moments of genuine emotion for characters onscreen and for Jojo’s journey of self. The movie still works well with its stated goals and direction, it’s just a bit limited because of the simplicity of its message and the lack of greater substance for its many characters.

The Jojo Rabbit novel was written before the rise of Donald Trump but Waititi has said that when they were filming that America’s current political climate was on his mind, and it’s not hard to make a few adaptations to apply this for the modern era. Perhaps a young boy sees Donald Trump as his imaginary friend and together they’re both all-in on trying to “make America great again” by first and foremost reporting any immigrant they see as illegal. Then later in the story he discovers his family is willfully hiding an undocumented child from being deported after they were stripped from their parents who were then deported. Now our naïve protagonist must reconcile the harsh rhetoric he has been taught with the growing empathy of connecting with another human being who doesn’t seem as dangerous or as sub-human as others claim. If you wanted to even make this parallel, it’s there, though I think that diminishes the setting. We shouldn’t need to tell movies during the Holocaust as metaphors for our modern struggles. I suppose this is another scenario where if you want to Inuit more of a relevant modern message, you can.

Jojo Rabbit (a nickname that seems forgotten after its christening) is a coming-of-age fable with equal parts charm and horror. Waititi takes a serious subject and doesn’t mitigate the evils of Nazism with his portrayal of a daffy imaginary Hitler. The production has an admirable swagger to it as it charts its own course, tackling serious subjects and young whimsy to portray a poignant story about childhood, loss, and growing up. It’s an amusing and heartfelt enterprise that I can’t help but feel could have done more than settling for some pretty safe messages and limited characterization. There wasn’t a moment with Jojo Rabbit where I wasn’t entertained, but I do wish the movie had more on its mind that reminding everyone that hate is bad.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

It’s a beguiling little buddy movie about a wrestling fan with Down syndrome (Zack Gottsagen) escaping his care facility, joining forces with a runaway screw-up (Shia LaBeouf) in over his head, and the nursing home assistant (Dakota Fanning) looking to find her charge so they can all sail down the river and meet an old wrestling coach (Thomas Haden Church) who may or may not exist. It’s an episodic journey that hearkens to Mark Twain and 90s indie cinema with its unorthodox family dynamics. The real pleasure of the movie is watching LaBeouf and newcomer Gottsagen bond, whether it be building a raft, channeling larger-than-life wrestling personas, running away from a vengeful criminal (John Hawkes), getting baptized by a blind man, and simply finding time to become friends. It’s one of those “journey, not the destination” films because by the end The Peanut Butter Falcon is nice but rather unremarkable. It’s amusing and sweet but the advertising was filled with heightened exclamations such as, “The sweetest damn film of the decade.” As I sat in my theater, I was wondering if there was something wrong with my ticker; it wasn’t exactly feeling too full from the onscreen proceedings. It felt like there were core elements here that could have been further built upon, further developed, to turn The Peanut Butter Falcon from a relatively good movie into a great one. It’s well acted and the photography of the South can be gorgeous. LaBeouf (American Honey) is genuinely terrific and carries the movie on his back as a beleaguered soul still wounded from personal tragedy. The way he becomes the biggest supporter and advocate for his new friend is heartening without feeling overly trite or saccharine. However, by the end, I didn’t feel too uplifted or moved by the accumulative adventures. I enjoyed myself, but much like a Twain story, it’s more the teller than the tale, and by its winding conclusion I felt like there was too much left behind unexplored.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Good Boys (2019)

The summer of 2019 has been a barren wasteland for comedies. That’s not to say there haven’t been funny movies released, but this summer has been a disappointment for any real success stories in the ha-ha department. Good Boys is the last best chance the summer has for a breakout comedy. It’s produced by Seth Rogen, it’s written and directed by writers from The Office, and the concept of a ribald sex comedy from the point of view of adolescents who don’t know anything about sex is a promising start. I might need to revise that last sentence. 

Sixth grade is a whole different world, at least according to the pint-sized stars of the movie, affectionately nick-named “The Beanbag Boys.” Max (Jacob Tremblay) is eager to tell his crush Brixlee how he feels and is given an epic opportunity when he’s invited by the “cool kids” to their party. Oh, and it’s a kissing party. Max is afraid of ruining his chances by being a bad kisser and generally giving away his inexperience. His two good friends are here to help but also dealing with their own problems. Lucas’ (Keith L. Williams) parents are getting divorced and he’s trying to put on a brave face about his fear of change. Thor (Brady Noon) is debating between embracing his passion for singing and theater or abandoning it to avoid being bullied. The three friends venture out on a wild day of adventures to make sure Max gets the girl. 

Before viewing, I was worried that Good Boys was going to basically be one joke on repeat, namely the kids saying something inappropriate and that being the joke. To the film’s credit, the dialogue exchanges and comic set pieces are not built around lazy shock value. There are some easy jokes to be had for sure, especially the kids misunderstanding sex toys as weapons and regular toys, but the movie doesn’t rest on these as its only source of funny. The kids curse freely but I found their salty language more endearing than shock value, and that’s how the film treats it as well. The joke isn’t that you wouldn’t expect children to speak this way, it’s more on their general naivete and urgency to be seen as their vision of what it means to be an adult. Much of the comedy comes from the kids looking to rush ahead without the personal wherewithal and maturity to understand what it means to exactly be a grownup.  

Because of this storytelling approach, Good Boys can feel like a high school comedy transplanted into a middle school setting. The kids are stressed about a big party with their reputations and chance at popularity on the line. They can finally make their move and score big with their crush. It’s amusing to watch and recognize certain high school movies archetypes retrofitted into 12-year-olds filling the roles. However, there’s also a predicated distance with this approach. It’s a view of childhood not quite ready for the adult world but it’s also told through the ironic lens of adulthood, where the audience can smile knowingly. It works in so much as a framing of the characters in a “oh, boys, if you only knew” manner that delivers more smiles and chuckles than it does side-splitting laughter. It’s a funny movie, sure, but it’s not hysterical. 

The best part of the movie for me was the fun camaraderie between the three boys. They feel very naturally like awkward friends ready to be embarrassed from one another at any moment but then call for their help the next. We have the Superbad dynamic of the timid nerdy kid, the awkward lovesick kid, and the outspoken loudmouth. Obviously given their ages, some of these characteristics are toned down (the boys are more horrified by sex and porn than aroused) but the types are still identifiable. The kids feel and act like kids and each of them works within their character lane and stays true to that. Their frantic worry and problem-solving was a consistent source of entertainment. I was surprised how far the film adds for a resolution, bringing in a bittersweet post-script that feels like it might have been pulled from a more grounded version (fear not, it still ends on a sex joke). You do get a strong sense of what this friendship means to the kids, even as they confront the question of whether or not their friendship is built to growing apart. By the end of the movie, I felt enough attachment to the three kids and happy that they were finding their way even if that meant the prospect of change. 

Structurally, Good Boys is too episodic and missing a clearer sense of direction. It can feel listless at times, drifting from one comic set piece that emerges to the next. Initially the driving force is learning how to kiss properly for the kissing party, but they quickly abandon the resource of the Internet absurdly early. The majority of the movie tracks the boys trying to get back a captured drone from two older teen girls they had been spying on. It can feel like the movie is stalling and doesn’t know what to do with its time. Sometimes it’s less noticeable when it finds an off ramp into something funny. The movie never gets too crazy save for a trip to a frat house that goes into stylized violence. Other times it feels like the story and scenarios were thrown together without the needed connective tissue to better justify why things are happening. It’s like the movie is shrugging about establishing cause-effect and doesn’t care about hiding it.

Good Boys is a cute summer comedy with a sweet heart and an attempt at a dirty mind. It’s not built for more than a relatively fun 90-minute trifle; perfectly enjoyable as a single serving but not anything you’ll feel the need to come back to. It can feel a little too laid back in its plot, tone, and comedy scenarios. It’s not enough to ruin the relative good times but it keeps Good Boys as only a minor success.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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