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Director Spotlight: Taika Waititi

The human experience is the synthesis between comedy and tragedy. Few filmmakers capture that synthesis as well as New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi. His visual signatures, including the New Zealand countryside, surreal imagery, and a “knack” for comedy editing, permeate his movies and shape his worlds. When watching a Waititi movie, there is no concern of being bored by exposition, as Waititi often employs succinct, communicative shots to explain or comically emphasize those tragically necessary info dumps.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

His movies share more than just playful compositions and good humor, however; each of Waititi’s movies feature characters grappling with their identity and relationship with their peers. His best movies – and the bar is fairly high – are character-centric, meaning that the drama proceeds naturally from the protagonist’s key flaw. Further, Waititi’s movies all share the aftermath of the most inescapable of human conditions – death. However, he does not leave his characters in misery; Waititi’s movies also share a beautiful and relentless optimism.


Waititi has been a popular figure in the film industry for several years now, even winning a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for his most recent film Jojo Rabbit. Before he takes an even deeper dive into the blockbuster-verse with Thor: Love and Thunder, now is a great time to experience or re-experience his filmography.


Eagle vs Shark (2007)

Waititi’s first movie is an unconventional romantic comedy. Co-writer Loren Taylor stars as Lily, a fast-food worker and a loveable misfit who desperately seeks the attention of regular customer Jarrod. Twenty minutes into the movie, Lily shows Jarrod her Mortal Kombat skills and wins a ticket to Jarrod’s bedroom. Jarrod, played by Jermaine Clement channeling Napoleon Dynamite, is a predictably disappointing lay (if Lily’s reaction is any indication).


Their intimate encounter does not diminish Lily’s attraction, however, and the two begin a somewhat tremulous romance. Lily soon accompanies Jarrod to his childhood home on New Zealand’s scenic coast, where Waititi spends the rest of the film exploring Jarrod’s psyche, including a neglectful father and a bully from high school. Lily has to decide if Jarrod is worth sticking around for.

Character: An honest and optimistic protagonist that is easy to root for from the opening shot is the highlight of Eagle vs Shark. Lily’s flaw is her belief that Jarrod will bring her happiness. This belief is soon shattered, and the audience hurts with Lily as she is betrayed by Jarrod.


Waititian Surrealism: Stop-motion apples fall in love, Loren Taylor glides by an oceanic mural, and sleeping bags chase one another over a hill.

Laughs: Jermaine Clement adds an earnestness to his awkward and arrogant Jarrod that never fails to surprise. Just when you think you despise him, Clement is dragging his tent across the lawn to make you laugh. Rachel House shines in her first Waititi role as Jarrod’s antagonistic sister Nancy, an avid multi-level marketer.


Themes: Tragedy appears even in Waititi’s romantic comedy. We learn that untimely death is at the root of Jarrod’s bravado and family issues. Although much of the movie’s tension comes from Lily’s optimism vs Jarrod’s trauma, Waititi never forces long monologues about the characters’ feelings. Simple dialogue, editing, and animations tell the beautiful story of Lily and Jarrod working themselves out.


Boy (2010)

Boy opens with the titular character, played by James Rolleston, giving a class speech in which he must answer the question, “Who am I?” Boy is an imaginative 11-year-old Māori child who lives with his grandmother, younger brother Rocky, and several small cousins on the New Zealand coast. Boy is tasked with taking care of the other children while the grandmother is away.


Waititi makes it clear from the opening shots the near-abject poverty the family lives in. Yet, the movie is not about the misery of poverty as it might be from an adult’s perspective. Boy is about the joy and simplicity of life through the eyes of a child.


Boy’s dreams come true when his long-absent father Alamein, played by Waititi himself, turns up at the family home. They are soon thrown into disarray as Boy discovers that Alamein does not fit the fantastic image Boy had of him. Alamein’s own image problems become clear throughout the movie, as does his life of crime, and the question arises, can one of them help the other grow up? Waititi’s signature themes and humor are nowhere more focused than in Boy; notably, Waititi is the sole writer/director.

Character: Boy’s flaw, like Lily’s in Eagle vs Shark, is a misguided expectation of another character. Boy forsakes his duties as a brother and cousin in an attempt to impress the father he always wanted, hoping to join in his father’s exciting life.


Waititian Surrealism: Rocky (a beautiful performance from one of the many non-career actor children in Boy, Te Aho Eketone-Whitu) believes that he possesses mystical powers. Rocky’s subplot involving his powers often takes a turn into whimsical animated notebook drawings. Boy’s fantasy imagines his father as a war hero, a samurai, a dance-fighter, and Boy’s other idol Michael Jackson. Don’t forget to watch the credits – all the credits.

Laughs: Kids are funny. They say and do things that an adult might not have the boldness for. When child actors are directed to act like natural children as they so skillfully are here, that heartwarming wit and charm comes through. Waititi and his two fellow convicts bring their own humor by way of their discomfort with legitimate responsibility. Rachel House gives another hilarious and understated performance as an aunt with several jobs – the only adult in site for most of the movie.


Themes: Boy’s mother is revealed early in the movie to have tragically passed away. Alamein’s complex relationship with his sons and his own inability to settle down appears to stem from, or are at least exacerbated by, this event. Waititi opens the movie with a quote from E.T. “You could be happy here. We could grow up together.” This is Boy’s plea, only instead of a squat green alien, Boy is reaching out to his father.


What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

The mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows is the only film on this list to feature a directorial collaboration, as Jermaine Clement joins Waititi in the director’s chair (both are also co-writers and stars in the movie). WWDITS follows vampires hailing from each of the last few centuries living in a flat in 21st-century Wellington. The monsters’ problems range from the conventional challenge of which-roommate-does-the-dishes to the mythical how-to-quench-your-unholy-thirst-for-blood. Group dynamics are tested as a new vampire moves in, and a looming annual social event promises to bring confrontations with old enemies.


Character: WWDITS is an ensemble movie, but Viago, played by Waititi, stands out as the protagonist because the world is seen from his perspective. Viago’s flaw is nerves. He is timid when confronting his roommates. His attempts to murder for feeding are downplayed by his desire to give his “guests” a nice evening. He failed at making a decision earlier in his life that he believes would have made him happier. Not all the drama in the movie comes from that flaw, but the audience never loses the connection to Viago and his subplot offers one of the movie’s best payoffs.

Waititian Surrealism: When your movie already features monsters with magical powers, there is little point in escaping into animated fantasy land. WWDITS is an excuse for the filmmakers to have fun with a real budget for makeup and simple practical effects. Some historical artwork shows up to juxtapose character backstories, often to hilarious effect.


Laughs: Collaborating with his friends seems to bring out Waititi’s silliest comedy elements. This is as close to low-brow as he gets. Because Waititi is having such a good time with his friends, WWDITS may be best enjoyed in company. Your friends’ uproarious laughter can help lighten the mood, especially 20 minutes in when you feel you may be too grossed out.


Themes: Jonny Brugh, one of the original collaborators with Clement and Waititi when WWDITS was just a microbudget short film, plays Deacon. Deacon has a speech near the end of the movie that sums up the fear of death present in vampire lore. For WWDITS, come for the laughs, stay for the heart. And stay until the after-credit tag.


Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

It may not be possible for me to select a favorite from the Waititi filmography, but Hunt for the Wilderpeople was my first and it remains the one that I choose to re-watch the most. Wilderpeople stars Julian Dennison as teenage rebel Ricky Baker as he goes to live with his foster parents, Rima Te Wiata as Bella and Sam Neill as Hec. Right off the bat, Wilderpeople is a fish-out-of-water tale, as city-kid Ricky must adapt to his new home in the breathtaking New Zealand countryside and learn if he has the “knack” to survive in the bush. If this does not seem like a lot to go on for the plot, know that my intention is not to spoil this one. It’s worth it to go in as blind as possible.


Character: It may be oversimplifying it to say that Ricky’s flaw is his adolescence, but it would not be inaccurate. Ricky fluctuates between two extremes; either his apathy makes him distrust everyone, especially those who actually care, or his stubbornness causes him to hold on too tightly to what he wants. Once again, Waititi proves his understanding of the psyche of a child. Who among us was not once a Ricky Baker?

Waititian Surrealism: Waititi reveals for the first time his talent for action editing, playing up the style akin to Tarantino’s homages when Bella first takes Ricky hunting and the thriller-worthy tension during a certain animal attack. Whimsical moments of fantasy abound through Ricky’s interactions with the characters he meets. Also, Sam Neill’s face is replaced with a cheeseburger.


Laughs: Ricky’s fronting in contrast to Bella’s earnestness makes for great fun. Ricky brings his love for rap and foul-mouthed haikus out to the peaceful countryside. Each member of Waititi’s wildercast (check the credits) gives their all to Waititi’s signature quirk, especially Dennison. Of course, the exception lies in Neill, who gives his all instead to the stoic and endearing straight-man Hec. Rachel House has her largest role yet in a Waititi film as a comically zealous social-welfare worker.


Themes: Waititi’s movie is full of characters “processing” (Ricky’s word). Waititi even revisits what it means to be a father, not only via Hec, but in another father/teenager duo whom Ricky meets in his adventure.


Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok is the first movie on this list in which Waititi does not earn a writing credit. It also has a budget more than eight times greater than every other movie on this list combined (more than 25 times greater if Jojo Rabbit is discounted). Both show.


In Ragnarok, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki deal with the prophecy of the end of Asgard. He loses his trusty hammer Mjolnir early in the film to the villain Hela, played by Cate Blanchett. Thor soon finds himself on the strange planet Sakaar where he meets Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, and a hilariously tyrannical Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster.

Character: Possibly due to Waititi not being a writer, the drama in Ragnarok does not entirely spark from the protagonist’s flaw. Thor’s flaw is his reliance on Mjolnir, so he must search inside himself to discover his true power. However, much of the movie is Thor simply riding along in a space adventure, the story becoming more plot-centric than character-centric. Waititi’s greatest contribution to Ragnarok is the much-needed makeover that he and Hemsworth give Thor. Noticeably stale as a dignified deity in previous films, Ragnarok features a Thor that is all sarcastic quips and airheaded charm.


Waititian Surrealism: Most of Ragnarok is already fairly outlandish and swathed in visual effects. A couple of shots, however, can be described as beautifully mythical in their presentation, such as Thor’s lightning-fueled slow-motion leap into a horde of zombie warriors. Another breathtaking sequence, Valkyrie’s flashback to a previous confrontation with Hela, offers a brilliant light-dark strobe lighting effect that Waititi claims (in his Blu-ray commentary) was employed for the first time in Ragnarok.

Laughs: Waititi allows his famously talented cast freedom to flex their improv chops in Ragnarok. Goldblum is at his deliriously comedic best, Thompson is a committed cynic and alcoholic, Ruffalo is perfectly hapless, and Blanchett is deliciously evil. The side characters are not to be forgotten; Benedict Cumberbatch appears as Doctor Strange in a memorably funny encounter with Thor and Loki, Rachel House offers a genius deadpan Topaz alongside the Grandmaster, and Waititi himself voices and mo-caps the friendly rock-giant, Korg.


Themes: Although lighter in the superhero epic, Waititi’s contemplation on death continues as the passing of Odin the All-Father, played by Anthony Hopkins, conflicts and serves to reunite the antagonistic brothers, Thor and Loki. Valkyrie is revealed to also be dealing with her share of trauma. That theme is rather hard to avoid as the movie does, after all, feature the goddess of death.


Jojo Rabbit (2019)

I may not have believed before 2016 that the national political conversation could be substantively added to by a World War II farce set in Hitler's Germany. As reality stands, Jojo Rabbit offers a timely fable of remembering humanity and kindness before groupthink and hate take over. Roman Griffin Davis stars as 10-year-old title character Jojo, a German boy caught up in Nazi fandom. Jojo lives with his mother – Scarlett Johansson’s brilliant Rosie, which was her second Oscar nomination in 2020 alone – as they await his father’s return from the war.


When a grenade accident sends him home from a Nazi Youth camp, Jojo’s Nazi principles are tested by ridicule from the other young party members and a mysterious teenage girl, Thomasin McKenzie’s Elsa, living in his walls. Jojo Rabbit is hilarious, and Waititi’s comedy/tragedy blend makes it simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming.

Character: Jojo’s obvious flaw might be his devotion to the most notorious death cult in history – which is accompanied by a false view of masculinity and what it means to be a “grown-up” – but the drama hinges on a different flaw. Jojo’s world is evil, and Jojo’s flaw is that he isn’t. There is a warmth and kindness to Jojo which are not found in his young Nazi peers (except, perhaps, his best friend Yorki, played by Archie Yates, who’s loveable simplicity keeps him from sharing Jojo’s fanaticism). Jojo fights off these tendencies as weakness. He also despises his physical scarring from the grenade wound obtained at camp. It is these differences with the Nazis, however, that become the flaw he must embrace.


Waititian Surrealism: Waititi himself plays an expansive role as Jojo’s internal Nazi conscience, personified by Adolf Hitler. Waititi wears the combover and the goofy mustache and puts a farce’s worth of effort into a German accent for the role. By playing Adolf and adding an obnoxious waggishness, even while sometimes using real speeches and quotes from the monster himself, Waititi offers the world a gift – the opportunity to laugh at Adolf Hitler. Not many other directors could have pulled this off.

Laughs: Jojo Rabbit works as a true farce because of its satirical commentary on the historical figures which it is meant to portray. Like Ragnarok, Waititi here allows his all-star cast to have fun and provide the fun. Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf, Alfie Allen as Finkle, and Rebel Wilson as Fraulein Rahm bring uproarious laughter to the terrifying work of propaganda distribution. The farce can be summarized in one sequence featuring Stephen Merchant as Gestapo agent Deertz. Deertz and fellow agents are searching Jojo’s house for what Deertz refers to as a “Goldilocks.” The scene has all the tension of the best cat-and-mouse thrillers, even as Merchant’s benign professionalism gives him the bearing of a door-to-door salesman. That allows Merchant to perform as an antagonist while making statements about the ignorance and foolishness of the historical Nazis.


Themes: Jojo’s world is death. Death is the inciting incident at the Nazi camp, as teenage Nazi counselors attempt to convince young Jojo to kill a rabbit. Reminders of the untimely death of his sister Inge are waiting for Jojo at home. Elsa the stowaway is acutely aware that should she be revealed, death at the hands of mass murderers awaits her. It is these realities that cause the kind-hearted and lonely Rosie to “do what she can” for her seemingly brainwashed son, and it is Jojo that must decide if this is the kind of world he wants to promote.

“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke

-Josh

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