November 8, 2019

The Intense, the Funny, and the Less Funny: 55th CIFF Review

Thomasin McKenzie, Roman Griffin Davis and Taika Waititi in "Jojo Rabbit," written and directed by Waititi.

Courtesy of Kimberly French/Twentieth Century Fox


The 55th Chicago International Film Festival wrapped up last week after two weeks of showcasing some of the best films that international and American cinema have to offer this year. From intense, funny coming-of-age movies like Honey Boy and Babyteeth to grave dramas like Our Mothers and The Painted Bird, this year’s festival featured many films that movie buffs will not want to miss when they come to theaters.

With far too many films for any one person to see, we sent 3 writers to scrape the surface of the Film Festival's extensive lineup. Here are a few of Wlad's favorites:

The first film in this festival wrap-up is Jojo Rabbit, writer-director Taika Waititi’s first film since he broke into the mainstream with Thor: Ragnarok in 2017. It tells the story of the eponymous Jojo, a young boy living in Nazi Germany who is in the Hitler Youth and zealously admires Adolf Hitler. However, Jojo’s fanaticism is shown to be immature, and his childish views about Hitler are personified by his imaginary friend, a hilariously simplified caricature of the Nazi leader himself (played to perfection by Waititi himself). Jojo’s entire worldview is shaken, however, when he finds a Jewish girl hiding in his house.

Jojo Rabbit is an incredible film. Waititi manages the near-impossible task of tastefully mocking the flawed mentality of the Nazi Party while also making legitimate points about the nature of hate and the elimination of deeply engrained prejudices. A satire at heart, this film is a shining example of Waititi’s celebrated comedic chops, both in front of the camera as imaginary Hitler and in the film’s tight script.

Roman Griffin Davis also absolutely kills his role as Jojo, delivering what might be one of the best child performances of the year as he portrays a comedically naive Nazi child forced to confront the horrors of the Nazi regime. Scarlett Johansson also delivers an award-worthy performance as Jojo’s irreverent mother, doing justice to Waititi’s witty writing. Jojo’s mother, an example of kindness in an unkind world, is the moral center of the film: Johansson inhabits this role beautifully. The rest of the supporting cast is similarly exceptional, with Sam Rockwell standing out as a hilarious Hitler Youth guide and mentor to Jojo.

Jojo Rabbit is out in theaters now.


Shifting away from satirical social commentary toward character drama, another film that stood out at this year’s festival was Tremors (originally Temblores), a film by Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante about the struggles faced by Pablo, a well-respected member of Guatemala’s evangelical Christian community who comes out as gay. In addition to the expected problems of acceptance in a socially conservative community, Pablo’s situation is complicated by the fact that he is married with children and comes from a wealthy family with concern for their public reputation.

Tremors is not an easy watch, but it is an honest portrait of the LGBTQ+ experience outside of the liberal bubble that envelops affluent cities and college campuses. After Pablo reveals his sexuality to his family, Bustamante’s script shifts its concern from the courageousness of Pablo’s honesty to the consequences of such honesty, particularly the disturbing fallout that can result from it.

Exploring the value of personal happiness over that of the ones you love, Bustamante asks extremely challenging questions of his protagonist, excellently portrayed by Juan Pablo Olyslager with an emotional distance that occasionally cracks to show true vulnerability. The viewer is forced to grapple with the challenging issues put forward by the film; we are appalled by the treatment of Pablo from those around him, and yet, are forced to wonder if he is truly being selfish by embracing his sexuality instead of sticking with his family. The supporting cast delivered great and believable performances, portraying the uncomfortable reality of the insidious conflation between intolerance and the love that evangelical Christianity encourages. A highlight is Diane Bathen, whose heart-wrenching performance as Pablo’s distressed wife manages the impossible task of making one sympathize with a bigot.

Tremors is a necessary film for 2019, warning us that bigotry and prejudice in forms that are unheard of in even the deepest of the deep red states are still rampant around the world. One of the most impactful LGBTQ+ films since Call Me by Your Name, Tremors demands that the viewer question their most deeply held moral beliefs and, for that, is one of the most important films of the year.

Tremors will be released in theaters on November 29, 2019.