Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Alternate Best Actor 2019: Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit

Roman Griffin Davis did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe, for portraying Johannes "Jojo" Betzler in Jojo Rabbit.

Jojo Rabbit follows a Hitler youth, whose imaginary best friend is Hitler (Taika Waititi), discovers a Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) is being hidden by his mother (Scarlet Johansson).

Roman Griffin Davis is the third child lead of a Taika Waititi film, after Boy and Hunt For the Wilderpeople, which along with this are his three best films. This child's view very much being a favorite perspective of his to capture the world. In the examples of this film and Boy, though "Wilderpeople" isn't exactly a Picnic, this purposefully obscures the perspective of the film that is of a harsher reality. Where in Boy it attempted to hide the titular child from a neglectful, abusive and criminal father, here it is a bit more broad in taking upon the entire Nazi Regime. This while still remaining a comedy, an often absurd one, that seems to be most in line with Chaplin's The Great Dictator, which also included a dogged Jewish love interest of sorts, a soldier fed up with the regime and a portrayal of Hitler as a buffoon. The difference here though instead of following an affable barber who is the doppelganger of the dictator, we follow a boy who is a true believer. This already shouldn't work, and for some viewers it does not, however for me the film does work, and an essential reason for this is in the boy of Jojo, and the performance of Roman Griffin Davis. I suppose I can immediately get it out of the way that Davis passes the child actor's test, as all Waititi's child leads do, which is avoiding cloying commercial style acting, or dull amateurism, you know effectively trying to give  a performance in general. The challenge of Davis's work though goes beyond that as so much of the tone of the film is in his hands. I suppose this suggests why there seems to be some connection between one's reaction to Davis's performance and the success of the film itself.

This is as Davis not only must avoid those child actor pitfalls but he must really pull off a challenging character, given that technically speaking he's unlikable, though with a redemptive arc, but one needs to avoid that. We get that because Davis, despite playing a Nazi, importantly does not portray Jojo as villainous in nature, rather his work in a way shows the true duplicity of propaganda by making Jojo in many ways just a normal sweet boy. Davis delivers a great enthusiasm in the part as he just about screams his "Seig Heil" towards imaginary Hitler, as though his Hitler youth camp will be that of any other summer camp. Davis portrays it with the wide eyed nature of the youth who seems to just be the best he can be by the virtues of the world that is around him. Davis's portrayal is that of any boy caught essentially within the popular culture of his time through that bright smile at the idea of hanging out with Hitler, and over confidence when telling his real best friend Yorki (Archie Yates), that he'll always be second to Hitler. Davis's hilarious in the moment because he speaks in the same way a boy would say that Batman is his best friend. Also I must note his wonderful chemistry with Yates as the two are a proper pair of dorks, for the lack of a better word. The two though capture just within the friendship itself an earnest sweetness while also being funny in portraying their mutual lack of insight towards their situation. It also must be said that the two really must play a young Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in a film at some point.

The comedy in Davis's performance though comes from the boyish enthusiasm he brings in these early scenes, as just his zest he brings in throwing a grenade at himself, or his always eagerness to see what his pal Hitler has to say to him. Davis finds the comedy through the technical absurdity of the state but by doing so as a overall believable young boy. This makes it so the initial minor dramatic turns, such as when Jojo refuses to murder a rabbit to show his "toughness", Davis realizes the anxiety of the moment effectively, as just as honest to a little boy who really wouldn't want to kill a creature when presented the objective directly in front of him. His grenade mishap leads him to being sent home, for lighter duties and to discover a young Jewish girl hiding in his house. Davis's performance continues to find the right combination here in the way of portraying both the dramatic and comic by emphasizing each side a bit differently. This in portraying his shyness and vulnerability around his scars, it is something he approaches very quietly and meekly. This creating a far more sympathetic young boy just afraid of what others will see him as. This is against the Hitler youth who finds the young girl, initially attempting to threaten her while also being easily intimidated. This is where Davis's work that emphasizes just how out of his element the boy is in every word that he speaks that has little depth or real feeling, but rather he speaks them as though they are recycled words of others. He also makes for a proper fool in portraying that bluster without certainty, but his fear as something that absolutely petrifies him.

We get sort of a cross section of the film between its comic and dramatic elements within Davis's performance. Each side is represented within his work and his performance must also provide an essential balance. In the scenes where he spends time at the local Nazi command, with disenchanted soldier Captain Klezendorf (Sam Rockwell) and a few more involved officials. Here Davis's manner again works in making the comedy, out of rather horrible questions about Jews, by playing these moments not as a reasoned mind, but rather a very young student with far too many questions for the teacher after class. His performance properly forgets the implication of the words, and that is what eases the blow while finding the humor of a boy brainwashed by hate. Davis properly comes off as a complete idiot in these moments, by making it truly the thoughts of a child in every delivery of inquiry, and every expression of wow, as Elsa gives him some serious misinformation. The other side of his work though is found in his scenes with Johansson which are terrific. This in portraying even his anger at her hiding his sworn enemy is of a temper tantrum, and in the moments where she reveals her love for him, it is very much as a son still in love with his mom. Their gentle scenes of less debate, and more encouragement are genuinely sweet in that sense of affection both reveal. In these moments Davis's wonderful in showing in his eyes a boy wholly looking up towards a mother he is learning from, and we see a greater depth in taking in these words than that blind fascination when listening to his bogus Hitler.

The film's progression is one largely towards the more dramatic this stemming from Jojo's relationship with Elsa. This as he slowly moves from a fear/distaste, towards a crush and genuine tenderness. Many of this represented in letters to Elsa from her boyfriend Nathan, actually written by Jojo. These all with a degree of petulance, but initially Davis reads them more cruelly like a kindergarten bully, though slowly segues into reading them like 1st grade valentines. This is mostly built up in a lot of reactionary moments from Davis that are beautifully performed. One of my favorites being when Elsa offers to kiss him, after he laments his scars will lead him to never be kissed, and his quick flash of shyness, excitement and fear, at her offer is just about perfect. His reactions creating a proper sense of Jojo slowly moving from fear to a quiet enchantment and concern as it seems the powers that be are closing in around Elsa. Davis's work manages to express essentially the maturation towards less of the thin beliefs of his brainwashed mind, and more so a boy who genuinely interacting with another person at a deeper level. In turn Davis's work becomes more dramatically inclined, and I find effectively so. This most particularly in the moment where Jojo finds a familiar pair of shoes hanging in front of him. The sorrow of this scene is realized powerfully within Davis's performance that just bluntly portrays the sheer disbelief and devastation of the moment. This even naturally bringing this to the following scene where he takes this out on Elsa by attempting to stab her. This moment Davis realizes well as this fit of confusion and grief of a boy without any sense of his place in the world. From this point though Davis's work though becomes more attuned to the reality around him, except one small, yet great bit of comedy I will get to. This in he captures the horror of the situation that dawns on him, and delivers a real emotional poignancy as he sees the world he's known crumble around him. A particularly remarkable moment in this regard being his interaction with Klezendorf as the two await execution by a Soviet firing squad. This in that Davis still shows the boy with him, but a honestly just scared and heartbroken kid, making the Captain's sacrifice for him then all the more moving. The defeat of Germany only leaving Jojo to do things, finally tell Hitler to "fuck off" and tell Elsa the war is over. The former a fine scene for Davis to be sure, of just Davis delivering no longer a blind fanaticism, and rather a sincere conviction of another kind. In his last scene though we get the best of both sides of Davis's performance. In that he opens the scene in again playing into the more complex emotions of the scene in his eyes bringing to life a sense of fear abandonment before initially lying that Germany won the war. We get his comic side though as Jojo's reads the final fake letter from Elsa's boyfriend indicating for her to escape. This delivered with a sweet tenderness by Davis to be sure, though with a hilarious tone bending aside when Elsa notes that Nathan died. This in Davis's wide eyed "uh oh" reaction and his perfect timing and delivery of "then who wrote these", that is rather adorable as it is comical. His performance ending though on a more earnest note in his unassuming portrayal of Jojo's apologetic expression after Elsa finds out the truth of who won the war. For me, this is yet another delightful child leading turn for a Waititi film, that once again manages to balance both humor and heartbreak in a most unusual coming of age story.

38 comments:

Robert MacFarlane said...

I really don’t want to rain on everyone’s parade on the blog since they seem to love this performance and film, but... I just don’t get it. I didn’t find him particularly convincing. Felt very much like a precocious child performance. Maybe that goes to my greater issues with the film itself being overly precocious in its satire. Man, this was the one movie I was praying I would like that I didn’t at all from 2019. Sorry if I’m a downer about it.

Emi Grant said...

Robert: I think the main reason I disagree with you is because when I finally watched this film, it hadn't been long since I saw Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Which goes to show much, much better Davis is. If anything, I'll give you that he may have had a couple of telegraphed comical moments, which is what brings him down to a 4.5 for me.

Mitchell Murray said...

Robert: Well at least you seem to like Johansson's performance the same as everyone...from the reviews I've read of the film, she seems to be the main aspect that most viewers - regardless of their opinion of movie - found merit in. All I can say is hopefully I'll find the same passion for her, and Davis of course.

Also, if you guys haven't done so, I implore you to watch some interviews with Davis and Archie Yates...they are hilarious together, and the comparisons to a young Simon Pegg/Nick Frost duo are certainly understandable.

Emi Grant said...

*how much

Tim said...

hey, i would like to hear everybody's thoughts on this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-exF1fBlqyA



This is About a Remake nobody in their right mind would want-

Calvin Law said...

Easy 5 for me.

Matt Mustin said...

Calvin: Same here.

Bryan L. said...

Luke: Rohrig-4.5. It’s a directors film, but he’s very good in his silent reactions.

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

I'd give him a 5, just for the scene where he discovers the shoes alone. It's a terrific performance.

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Louis: Your thoughts on the scene in El Camino where Jesse calls his parents.

Calvin Law said...

Tim: I completely agree on all that.

Also, even though this wasn't a 5 review, reading it actually solidified me putting him in my top 5 all the more. Even though I still hate leaving Driver out of it.

RatedRStar said...

I am so hoping that Next Goal Wins is good.

Charles H said...

Davis would be a very strong 4.5 for me as well, although some of his best scenes make me tempted to upgrade him. He'd be in my top 10 lead for the year.

RatedRStar said...

0% on Rotten Tomatoes for The Last Thing he Wanted, lol can see why this film got pushed back from its original release period.

Luke Higham said...

He'd be a five for me

I hope Diehl's next. :)

Mitchell Murray said...

Also, Cinemasins just released their "Joker" review, and its about as blunt and merciless as you could imagine.

I'm still planning to re-watch the film to get a better view on Phoenix, but I doubt I'll be inclined to revisit it afterwards. Honestly, given that a surprise win by Adam Driver isn't that probable, if the movie wins any other oscar besides best actor, I'll be very disappointed..

Luke Higham said...

Have to admit, that Golden Lion win really suckered me in on my first viewing.

Anonymous said...

Luke, which 2019 films do you still need to catch up on?

Bryan L. said...

Damn, I thought he WAS going to get a five, since the films tone relies heavily on him and he’s the one who makes it work.

Luke Higham said...

Anonymous: Have to be honest, might be another month or 2 before I give rankings. Work is a priority and there are other things I'd like to spend my time doing. I haven't seen Waves yet.

Calvin Law said...

I watched Only You off of Kermode’s top 10 list, which I liked even though it meanders a bit. O’Connor and Costa are great.

RatedRStar said...

Calvin: Did Kermode not do a top 10 worst this year? he usually does.

Bryan L. said...

Louis: Your thoughts on Taika Waititis direction for this film and Thor: Ragnarok?

Calvin Law said...

RatedRStar: I can’t seem to find it anywhere.

Mike Hannigan said...

Louis: Your thoughts on the rest of the cast (especially Johansson). Thanks.

Calvin Law said...

Also did a double screening of Trading Paint and Serenity. Wow.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Any other viewings these past 4-5 days.

Bryan L. said...

Mike Hannigan: He covered Waititi when he announced the Alternate Best Supporting Actor lineup.

You can find the thoughts for everyone else at...

http://actoroscar.blogspot.com/2019/11/alternate-best-actor-1999-anthony.html

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Your ten most haunting/harrowing music compositions of the decade and your top ten overall.

Luke Higham said...

*top ten music compositions of the decade overall.

Bryan L. said...

Luke: Off the top of my head, “The Tide” from Dunkirk is a good shout. Especially with how it’s used in the film (the soldier walking to the English Channel).

Also, both “Moon Walk” and “Home” from First Man.

RatedRStar said...

JoJo Rabbit will probably lose all of its Oscar nominations, but regardless it is great to see it do so well considering early on it was getting mixed reviews.


RatedRStar said...

I do love hidden gems, I just watched one called "Dirty Pretty Things" its a brilliant film, whoever suggested Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves a hug, he is brilliant.

Luke Higham said...

RatedRStar: Calvin requested him.

Calvin Law said...

You're very welcome RatedRStar. The whole cast is great, and he is the shining star in it. The screenplay getting an Oscar nod is also one of the most inspired choices ever.

By the way, here's my leading lineups now: - https://reelandroll.blogspot.com/2020/01/reel-and-roll-awards-best-leading.html

Eagerly awaiting either Diehl or MacKay's review for tomorrow.

Charles H said...

I really hope it's MacKay although it's probably going to be Diehl. Nonetheless i'm greatly looking forward to both reviews.

Louis Morgan said...

Will get to all thoughts, just want to try to maintain a somewhat steady pace.

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