Outside of New Zealand it’s highly likely that the political clash at the centre of Hamish Bennett and Paul Middleditch‘s Uproar is one that’s never been heard of.
Set in 1981, the ultimately uplifting, oft-powerful coming-of-age dramedy centres around the controversy that arose from the South African rugby team touring New Zealand at the time. A cultural reckoning was born through those that protested their involvement, which many argued was upholding South African apartheid, whilst others opposed that politics had no place in the sport itself. Despite its 4-decade old setting, Uproar very much speaks to the type of mentality that would likely take place today.
As tensions rise, Dunedin teenager Josh (Julian Dennison, truly proving his worth as a dramatic performer) has his own personal struggles to contend with, namely the archetypal bullies at his school and in caring for his older brother Jamie (James Rolleston), a one-time rugby prodigy whose career-ending injury has taken a toll on his mental health. Additionally, there’s Josh’s own Māori heritage that he’s essentially contending with as he so often refers to such in the third person. Though he has English heritage on his mother’s side (Minnie Driver in a stern, yet tender performance), Māori blood courses through him, and through both the political unrest surrounding him and in finding his calling as an actor (the delightful Rhys Darby as his high school English teacher assuring Josh that he’s “not crap” as a performer), Josh learns to find both his voice and his place in a world he continually feels is rejecting him.
Though Bennet’s script – co-written with Sonia Whiteman – occasionally feels as if it’s trying to cover too many bases, Uproar manages to find that sweet balance of warm comedy and emotional resonance. It’s a bit more of a low-key start to its story, with the charm of Dennison and Darby driving much of the humour, before it rises with a dramatic temperament in its latter half, where Josh fights for what he believes in – both for himself and his people; an audition tape he hopes to send to NIDA acts as an emotional manifestation in arguably the film’s most powerful moment.
The fact that such racial issues still play out today only adds to Uproar‘s overall impact as a story. It’s quite sad that as many steps forward have been taken, there’s still so little that has changed. But the beauty in this delicate, if clichéd, film is that it’s highlighting a story of defiance. Whether it’s from outside influences or inside slighting, Bennett and Middleditch’s winning film speaks to the strength of one’s own convictions through the beauty of universal storytelling.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Uproar screened as the Opening Night feature at this year’s Brisbane International Film Festival, running between October 26th and November 5th, 2023. The film is scheduled for a national release on November 30th, 2023.