A man holds a rugby ball and runs through a crowd.

Film Review: Uproar


Directors: Paul Middleditch, Hamish Bennett 

Firefly Films, Caravan Carpark Films and Kingston Productions
In Theaters: 03.26

When a breakthrough talent comes along who doesn’t fit into an easily defined category, the film industry often struggles with the question of what to do with them. Julian Dennison is that such talent and despite being transplanted to Hollywood and working steadily in blockbusters since his breakout starring performance in Hunt for The Wilderpeople in 2016, it has taken returning to indie film in his native country of New Zealand in Uproar for him to be utilized to his full potential.

In 1981, in New Zealand, Josh Waaka (Dennison) lives with his widowed mother, Shirley (Minnie Driver, Good Will Hunting) and older brother Jamie (James Rolleston, The Dark Horse) in Dunedin, where Josh attends St Gilbert’s School for Men, a school that lives and dies by its rugby program. Josh’s weight and his Māori heritage make him an easy target for the predominantly white jocks at the school. Despite his lack of interest in the sport, rugby is in his blood. Josh’s father excelled at the sport and Jamie was a star player until he suffered a career-ending leg injury. A controversial tour of the South African rugby team, the Springboks, stirs up anti-apartheid protests and draws parallels to New Zealanders who see the class system in South Africa as a mirror of the separation between white Kiwis and the indigenous Māori people. Josh’s only real friend is a Samoan girl named Grace (Jada Fa’atui), who is pulled into the world of activism by her friend Samantha (Erana James, The Wilds), and tries to pull Josh right along with her. As Grace joins the marches, Josh explains that he’s “more of a sitter,” though he becomes increasingly involved. Meanwhile, he’s encouraged by a teacher, Brother Madigan (Rhys Darby, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) to join the burgeoning drama club, where Josh discovers a natural talent that stirs something inside him. The family’s livelihood is built on their rugby legacy, however, and with nationally renowned player Jamie pulled in as assistant to coach the team, Josh is forced by his mother to join up, and the authoritarian Principal Slane (Mark Mitchinson, The Hobbit) makes it clear that participating in protests against the Springbok tour is strictly forbidden. Caught between family loyalty, the quest to fit in and the possibility of finally finding himself, Josh must decide whether to take a stand or spend his life sitting.

Uproar is smart, funny and heartfelt but relies a bit too heavily on formulaic story-telling, yet it has enough sincerity and an abundance of charm that it’s hard to hold a bit of predictability against it. The theme of the pressure to conform versus the desire for self-expression is captured with sensitivity and insight. The delicate balance between the positive influence of organized sports as an outlet for building character and community, and its ability to become an unhealthy and even oppressive obsession as well as a bastion of bullying is done well. South African apartheid and the racial divide in New Zealand is a weighty subject matter for a dramedy, and the screenplay by Hamish Bennett and Sonia Whiteman tackles particularly the latter topic with dignity and thoughtful insight. Through it all, the immense likability of the central characters sees the film through. 

The role of Josh feels tailor-made for Dennison, giving him a chance to play the lead role for the first time since Wilderpeople, and to use a sports metaphor, he does whatever the hell you do in rugby that wins a game or a match or a pram or a telly or whatever you call it. Hollywood is determined to peg Dennison as a character actor due to his body type and ethnicity, but he’s quite clearly a leading man, whether doing comedy or drama. Dennison is expertly supported by a brilliant character actor in Darby, who makes Brother Madigan delightfully silly, caring, determined and sad all at the same time. Driver is a perfect mix of maddening and sympathetic as the controlling mother, and Mabelle Dennison, Julian’s real-life mother, steals the movie with her lovable moving performance as Samantha’s Aunt Tui.  

Uproar is one of the best mainstream films to come out in 2024 up to this point, and it’s a triumphant validation for Julian Dennison, who shows that Hunt for the Wilderpeople was anything but a fluke and that he has real star potential. I highly recommend that you march to the nearest cinema, take your part as a “sitter” and enjoy. –Patrick Gibbs

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