Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Jojo Rabbit
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

There’s a reason that TIFF is often regarded as the unofficial start to awards season. Some of the other fests in its calendar vicinity, like Telluride and Venice, have a better track record for premiering movies that will become major awards contenders. (The programmers here don’t seem too hung up on being the absolute first to show future prize-magnets, so long as they can show them eventually.) But Toronto has its own claim on influencer status, and that’s the tornado of buzz instantly kicked up by its annual People’s Choice Award. In 10 of the last 11 years, the crowd-pleaser that went on to steal audiences’ hearts the hardest at TIFF later scored an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. And a few of them have even won—including, yes, last year’s dispiritingly regressive choice, Green Book, which actually did premiere here.

Votes won’t be tallied until the end of this coming weekend, but seven days into the festival, it’s very likely the eventual audience-award winner has already screened. The nonstop elated guffawing at the world premiere tells me that Rian Johnson’s mind-bogglingly, meticulously engineered Knives Out has a shot. In an uplift contest, betting on Mr. Rogers always seems like smart money, so don’t count out It’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood. And as friend, A.V. Club contributor, and Rogerebert.com editor Brian Tallerico reminds me, you don’t need to prove you saw a film to vote for it on the TIFF website, which means that #TeamDC could come out in full force to stuff the ballots for Joker.

Of course, it probably would take a mobilized army of fans to push such a grim, violent movie over the line. Usually, the Toronto hoi polloi reaches for something much more feel-good, something that hits a sweet spot between spirit-lifting and heartstring-tugging, with a side of hearty chuckles. You know, something like Jojo Rabbit (Grade: C+), Taika Waititi’s new comedy about a plucky, underdog kid who’s picked on by his peers, and confides in an imaginary friend. There is, of course, a small wrinkle in that familiar plot: The kid is part of the Hitler Youth, and his imaginary friend is, well, the Führer, who Waititi himself plays as a comic anachronism—a kind of petulant millennial gossip.

Disney, post-merger with Fox, has expressed some apprehension about how a movie with such a premise might affect their brand. Or maybe that’s just a PR scheme to make Jojo Rabbit seem more daring and dangerous than it really is. The opening minutes promise irreverence, at least, following as they do Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) as he tries to be the best little fascist he can at a training camp for the kids, run by a bunch of wacky and/or exasperated Nazi instructors played by the likes of Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, and Rebel Wilson. Eventually, however, a real plot emerges: Jojo discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson, gamely committing to her role as the most woke frau of 1945) is sheltering in their attic a Jewish teenager (Leave No Trace’s Thomasin McKenzie, who also appears in True History Of The Kelly Gang here at TIFF).

Waititi’s brand of droll Kiwi absurdism, on full display in What We Do In The Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok, can be very inspired; I’ll confess that I laughed at some of the writer-director-performer’s shtick (“So, how’s it all going with that Jew thing upstairs?” his imaginary Hitler casually asks the boy), as well as the ways that McKenzie’s character trolls and threatens her budding, swastika-sporting child companion. (The opening credits, featuring archival footage of “Hitler mania” set to a German rendition of “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” promise a marginally more cutting comedy.) But strip away the jokes, and Jojo Rabbit is largely indistinguishable from the kind of middlebrow Holocaust tearjerkers that used to routinely win the Foreign Language Oscar. It’s The Wilderpeople In The Striped Pajamas. And like countless films before it, all it really wants to do is reassure its audience that love can conquer all, even in a country in the grips of authoritarianism. That’s a nice platitude that rings a little false in the face of such unfathomable historical horror.

Or, you know, what’s going on right now. Jojo Rabbit bills itself as an “anti-hate satire,” but what’s it really satirizing? Nazi Germany? Artists have been doing that since Hitler was still alive. At heart, Waititi’s comedy is too gentle and silly to bother much of anyone; he even puts on the kid gloves with the Nazis, depicting them mostly as incompetent goofballs or neurotic drones—no more detestable, really, than Colonel Klink—when he’s not offering them actual redemption. It doesn’t take too much interpretative energy to extend the film’s themes to a new era of unchecked and condoned intolerance, but Jojo Rabbit, the most twee Holocaust movie ever, never makes that connection explicit or specific—it’s “about right now” only in the sense that Nazis are back, and they still suck. True satire challenges and provokes. This one offers free hugs.

Waves
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Jojo Rabbit has largely divided critics here in Toronto; I know just as many folks who’d nod with satisfaction if the film won the People’s Choice Award as those, like me, who would roll their eyes. Much more widely acclaimed is the new drama from Trey Edward Shults, a sensory-overload epic of adolescence called Waves (Grade: B-). In simplest terms, the movie is about the unraveling life of a teenage athlete played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., who starred in Shults’ previous film, the A24 sizzle-without-steak thriller It Comes At Night, and also delivered what may be the performance of the year in last month’s Luce. But right from the start, when the camera does 360-degree loops in a moving car while an anthem blares deafeningly on top, Shults treats his narrative as a coat-hanger for a style that’s sometimes assaultive, sometimes expressive—his camera constantly pushing into and around the characters, the colors often as loud as its shuffled playlist of Frank Ocean and Animal Collective bangers, coupled with a new ambient score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Conceptually, Waves is ambitious. Shults divides the plot into two distinct passages, a before and an after, and develops a different visual and sonic language for each. The first is tense and claustrophobic, the director applying some of the nervous energy of his terrific debut, Krisha, to the gauntlet of pressure (and physical distress) Harrison’s Tyler finds himself under. The second half, which more closely adopts the perspective of his sister (Taylor Russell) and the boy (Lucas Hedges) she begins seeing, is dreamier and less oppressive, an elegiac doodle. When the project was announced, it was billed as a musical. That’s turned out to be more spiritually than literally true—besides one scene of Harrison belting out Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle” at a party, no one breaks into song and dance here. But the film does feel driven, in almost all moments, by its music, which doesn’t just inform the editing rhythms but also seems to speak to the emotions Tyler can’t always communicate to his demanding father (Sterling K. Brown), concerned stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and drifting girlfriend (Alexa Demie).

There are so many American indies about troubled families that exhibit almost nothing in the way of aesthetic identity that it feels churlish to complain about one that has a surplus of it. But I felt always on the outside looking in with Waves, a bifurcated meditation on teenage life whose camera moves often upstage its fine performances and whose relentless churn of montage never provides any kind of solid ground, any present tense to the drama, which Shults paints in broad strokes. He came up working behind the scenes on latter-day Terrence Malick productions, and that’s never been more evident than it is in this movie’s second half, which blatantly apes that master director’s “mature” style—its hushed dances of emotional and spiritual communion, but also its airy vagueness of character and psychology. Waves felt to me like a bitching soundtrack in search of a movie. Maybe I’ll find one on rewatch.

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