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TIFF23: Julian Dennison in Uproar Is Hilarious and Emotional

Uproar 2023 © Firefly Films, Caravan Carpark Films, Kingston Productions. Photo Marc Weakley

At the World Premiere of Uproar at TIFF on September 11th, directors Paul Middleditch and Hamish Bennett were in attendance to humbly accept the applause of a happy audience having just witnessed a fantastic display of New Zealand humour with delightful indigenous significance for the Maori people whose lives are commemorated by Julian Dennison’s performance as Josh Waaka.

Uproar is a coming-of-age story about Josh Waaka (Julian Dennison, best known for 2016’s The Hunt of the Wilderpeople), a teenager growing up in Dunedin in 1981. Josh doesn’t fit in; he has glasses, he’s bigger than his classmates, and he’s Moari at a primarily white school in the 1980s. It’s a miraculous story about how it feels not to fit in and find yourself despite the pressure to be like the herd.

In New Zealand, to be indigenous is to be considered “Black” and racially ostracized by society—that is to say that racism is very much present in the country. So, when the South African National Rugby Team travels to New Zealand for a tour in the midst of controversy over Apartheid and their legalization of racism, it is noble some white New Zealanders are opposed to their presence, although simultaneously hypocritical.

Co-writer and director Hamish Bennett (Bellbird), we owe plenty of Uproar’s social commentary on this time from the perspective of a Maori kid. Although the original foundation for Uproar was based on Paul Middleditch’s life growing up as a kid with glasses who didn’t fit in, when Julian Dennison hopped onto the project, it became very important for the story to evolve and include the Maori perspective. The backdrop of boycott and rioting was ever present in the script prior to Hamish Bennett’s inclusion, but the layered analysis of the turbulent time was all him.

I found myself welling up several times during the film. These two directors capture the emotion and obscure journey of Josh Waaka so well, and Julian Dennison is fantastic. Playing Dennison’s white mother is Minnie Driver, who delivers a deliciously nuanced portrayal of a single mother of two deeply traumatized boys. Although she sometimes performs as slightly emotionally removed, it’s part of her development to be more open with her sons and see them more clearly for their whole identity.

As the story goes in Uproar, following their father’s death, Josh and his brother Jamie Waaka (James Rolleston) become isolated from their Maori culture and somehow indebted to their institute’s Rugby team and schoolmaster. Jamie seems to have been in some kind of accident and has to use crutches to get around; his injury has infringed on his once very active lifestyle and he fell into a massive depression. As part of Jamie’s road to recovery, he coaches the institute’s rugby team. However, amidst Josh’s journey of reconnecting with his culture, discovering his passion for acting and growing disdain for the bigotry he experiences on the day-to-day, he decides to take a public stance.

Of course, Josh’s public defiance goes against the status quo and threatens to tear apart his family’s lives, which are so directly tied to the institute. But as the story comes to its climax and close, we get to see Josh make his final stand for equality with his family bravely standing, or rather sitting, beside him in the middle of the institute’s rugby field as a sit-in protest.

Uproar reaches a happy resolve with Josh and Jamie firmly reconnecting with their indigenous roots and Minnie Driver finding community there, too. Dramatic and funny, Uproar is a top-notch dramady with plenty to laugh at, cry for and feel throughout.

We also see a few recognizable faces. Rys Darby is the friendly Brother Madigan who encourages Josh Waaka to audition for a prestigious acting school; you’ll recognize Darby from Our Flag Means Death and Flight Of The Concords. We also see Erana James, who plays the spritely and riotous Samantha that sparks a fight in Josh’s identity; you may recognize James from Prime Video’s The Wilds.

Uproar is a heartwarming historical film which is a pleasure to watch. The color palette was something important to Paul Middleditch as a way to signify the positive and lighter moments of the time, not just the strife and struggle and rioting. Despite the heavier undertone of Uproar about apartheid and the unfair treatment of New Zealand’s indigenous people, this is a humorous coming-of age story definitely worth a watch.

Written by Isobel Grieve

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