M, 110 Minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

This light-hearted drama with deadly serious intent is as good-natured as its charismatic young lead actor, Julian Dennison. Eight years have passed since the young Maori stole the show from the effortlessly amiable Sam Neill in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, when he played a foster child who is quite the handful. After running away and getting booted out of a string of homes by adoptive carers, he tried one more time to escape the system with Neill’s character in hot pursuit. Things turned out differently that time.

The Wilderpeople comedy classic, a showcase for the subtle, dead-pan, self-deprecating New Zealand sense of humour, featured the work of Dennison and director-screenwriter Taika Waititi. It has had a huge impact on the careers of both.

In Uproar, Dennison appears as Josh Waaka, a 17-year-old day student at St Gilbert’s School, a Catholic boys school in Dunedin. The stunning South Island city is often portrayed here as a blustery, rainy place whenever doors to the outside are open, which may be an in-joke for New Zealanders but is still amusing.

Josh is a magnet for the school bullies

Josh’s life at home is a struggle but at least he is settled and secure. With his harried, single mum, Shirley (Minnie Driver), working at several jobs, and his older brother Jamie (James Rolleston, from Boy), a former junior All Black, recuperating from a leg injury.

Josh is however a magnet for the school bullies. It just makes him more stay-at-home, and more of a recluse at school. The library is a good safe place where the bullies cannot bother him.

Unfortunately for Josh, the racist schoolyard bullying is just about to become a whole lot worse. It’s 1981, and the Springboks rugby team has arrived in the country, sparking protests nationwide against their home country, still an apartheid regime. Community tensions were very heightened in New Zealand society, and the world was watching.

Across the sea in Australia, the Springboks hadn’t been invited to play since 1971, but in NZ in the 1980s the forces backing the All Blacks to compete against the Springboks were formidable. A tour of matches between these top international teams had been arranged at venues around the country, including Dunedin. The tour was likely to be a showdown between the anti-apartheid protesters, whose ranks were swelling with new Maori members, and the police and rugby diehards who had a fierce belief that there was no place for politics in sport.

An empathetic teacher at St Gilbert’s, Madigan (Rhys Darby), is onside. He tries to winkle Josh out of his shell with invitations to do an interpretative reading in front of the English class. Josh declines but on another occasion reveals his prodigious skills when making an audition tape for drama school in Australia. Despite a career in the performing arts seeming an unrealistic career choice for a boy whose mum works three jobs and whose own after-school work is delivering circulars to local letter boxes.

In a polarised society, fence-sitting was no longer an option

Josh discovers that in a society polarised, equivocating is no longer an option and he must acknowledge his Maori identity. It is touching that the character who makes this plain to him is Tui (played by Julian’s own mother) and his female Maori friends.

As if in counterpoint to the serious moments, a jaunty soundtrack lifts the film’s mood. Nothing quite prepares us, though, for the Maori haka performed spontaneously by anti-apartheid protesters as they face-off with police. With video camera in hand, Josh first experiences the rousing unique performance through the lens, before we see that the war dance speaks directly to the ‘brown boy’ in him. A stirring moment.

As a mixed-race kid with a white Anglo mother (Driver), he had been a fence sitter. There is empathy for him and for his mum who has struggled, through her life choices, to be accepted by both her own and her husband’s family.

Uproar is directed by Paul Middleditch and Maori filmmaker Hamish Bennett, who both collaborated with Sonia Whiteman on the screenplay. The folksy charm of their coming-of-age story keeps faith with the comedy label, though drama with comic elements describes it better. It is familiar territory, but the lead performance is terrific, and there is plenty of the NZ humour to savour.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 December 2023.  Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes