If countries were comic book characters, New Zealand is like well-mannered and easy-going Bruce Banner. But in 1981, the nation transformed into a raging Hulk. At least, that’s the way Uproar’s 17-year-old high schooler Josh Waaka (Julian Dennison) explains it.
In 1981, the South African national rugby team toured New Zealand, infuriating New Zealanders who opposed South African apartheid. The outraged citizens launched government protests to stop the South Africans from playing in their country.
Further complicating matters, the protests were like a slap in the face to New Zealand’s Indigenous communities, as the country was still failing to address racial inequality among its own people.
Civil rights protests are the last thing on the half-Māori teenager’s mind, but the issue is thrust upon him as he’s confronted by racist classmates and a school faculty that looks down upon Indigenous people. Josh is the type of kid who’s fine with flying under the radar. He refuses to speak up in class and spends his lunch hours alone in the library, wolfing down food whenever the librarian turns her back.
When his older brother Jamie (James Rolleston), a former rugby star, joins the school’s coaching staff, Josh comes along as part of a package deal. Josh is no athlete but playing high school sports forces him to socialize while following in his late father’s footsteps.
However, it’s clear Josh is a lover and not a fighter, and rough-and-tumble sports aren’t a natural fit. His perceptive teacher, Madigan (Rhys Darby), recruits him to join the drama club, and performing on stage as other people helps Josh become the most authentic version of himself.
Co-directors Hamish Bennett and Paul Middleditch’s delightful coming-of-age story Uproar is about a teenager figuring out who he is and how he fits into the world. It reminds me of another of this year’s festival favourites, Flora and Son. Both films are endearing tales about people whose lives change drastically once they discover their passion.
Whether making music or performing Othello, embracing art allows folks to perceive the world in new ways. Art gives artists a broader vocabulary to express themselves and a platform to share their deepest convictions.
At seventeen, most kids Josh’s age struggle to figure out what type of person they are. It’s the point when kids try on personalities like new clothes, desperate for the right fit. Josh’s mom, Shirley (Minnie Driver), has told him what to do for so long that he’s uncomfortable being his own person. So being aggressive on the field, performing on stage, or speaking out against racism takes him far outside his comfort zone.
Dennison is a charismatic performer with charm to spare, making for a captivating lead. This meaty lead role allows him to flex his ample comedic and dramatic muscles. The entire supporting cast is excellent but I wish the film gave them more to do. I’m always excited to see Rolleston listed in a film’s credits. He delivers an earnest and restrained performance here as Josh’s depressed older brother.
Driver is solid as the brothers’ beleaguered mother, torn over protecting her child from a hostile world and finding the courage to let him forge his own path. And Rhys Darby charms as the teacher who sees potential in a kid who doesn’t see it in himself. Dennison and Darby have wonderful chemistry, and all I want right now is to see the magnetic duo reunite for a buddy comedy.
The world would be a better place if everyone united for the common good. But that’s rarely the case. Until the day we become an internet-connected hive mind, people have individual wants and needs, so we act based on self-interest. Co-writers Bennett and Sonia Whiteman script skillfully examines how acting out of self-interest leads well-meaning people to end up on the wrong side of history.
People living on society’s fringes like Shirley, are too overwhelmed by their own daily struggles to commit to political activism. When the protests interrupt the much-hyped South Africa versus New Zealand match, she’s upset by the inconvenience. It’s not that she is pro-apartheid, but she’s an exhausted working class mom with few pleasures to look forward to. She doesn’t have the emotional bandwidth to worry about oppressed citizens in another country.
When it comes to her own family’s struggles with racism, it’s outside influences that encourage Shirley and her children to stay silent. There are social and financial repercussions to speaking out against anti-indigenous oppression. It’s easier to remain silent than speak out, lose her jobs, and then struggle to find work. Again, it’s not that she’s pro-discrimination, it’s easier to keep silent than to speak out and get fired or have her son kicked out of school.
Uproar is a formulaic coming-of-age story that feels all too familiar at times. But that’s a minor quibble for a laugh-out-loud-funny drama that adeptly delves into complicated issues of allyship and racial identity. And Dennison’s impassioned performance is the secret weapon that infuses Uproar with wit, charm, and ineffable soul.