[Review] A family-friendly holocaust film? ‘WAITING FOR ANYA’ tells tender story for all ages

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

WAITING FOR ANYA

Not rated, 109 minutes.
Director: Ben Cookson
Cast: Noah Schnapp, Anjelica Huston, Jean Reno, Gilles Marini, Thomas Kretschmann, Sadie Frost, Tómas Lemarquis and Nicholas Rowe

The Holocaust is a dark and horrible chapter in history that can be difficult for one to talk about with your children. While there’s an abundance of titles featuring Nazi Germany decorated in iron crosses and swastika armbands, there are few titles that function as age-appropriate works about the traumatic period for young viewers. Arguably, the most suitable films are told from the perspectives of children.

Ben Cookson’s incredibly touching Waiting for Anya is one of those very films.

It can teach kids about the Holocaust, and it does so in a visually enticing and thematically engaging way that never terrorizes. Anchored by heartwarming turns by Noah Schnapp (of Stranger Things fame), Thomas Kretschmann (2005’s King Kong), Jean Reno and Oscar-winner Angelica Huston, Waiting for Anya is a historical coming-of-age story about a young gentile boy battling the Germans in the war against the Jews.

Based on the 1990 novel by Michael Morpurgo (War Horse), the 1942-set story opens with 12-year-old Jo (Schnapp) guarding sheep when his dog alerts an approaching bear. Jo goes to warn the villagers in his small French town, and they kill the hapless bruin — highlighting the theme of the more tragic hunt for human prey. The bear chase leads to Jo meeting Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt), a Jewish man who is hiding in his reclusive mother-in-law’s (Huston) mountain home. Benjamin protects Jewish children and leads them to safety in nearby Spain. The now-enlisted Jo comes to their aid and helps to bring supplies for their cause.

Thomas Kretschmann, left, and Noah Schnapp star in ‘WAITING FOR ANYA,’ a film about a young shepherd who works with others to smuggle Jewish children from the southern France border into Spain.

For anyone well versed with history, Waiting for Anya may not be the freshest of entries. It’s a sanitized account that concerns itself more with casting a wider net rather than breaking beyond the Hallmark Card perimeters, and that’s perfectly OK. The book in which it’s based on is a children’s novel. We shouldn’t expect it to present the era as the R-rated reality that it was. The film has a gentle heart and tells the kind of story that can educate and inspire.

The relationship that transpires between Jo and a Nazi Korporal (Kretschmann), who doubts the integrity of his mission (akin to Sam Rockwell in Jojo Rabbit), gives the film most of its emotional weight. The conversations the two have set about with tension, but as the story progresses, both face moral crossroads and understand the value of family and human life.

Although the pace occasionally lags, there’s no denying that Waiting for Anya will fill you with compassion. It’s a classic story of heroes and enemies. But more importantly, it’s a tender tale about a community coming together to do the right thing – and that’s beautiful.

Grade: B-

WAITING FOR ANYA opens Friday in select theaters and releases On Demand and Digital HD.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.