A semi-autobiographical depiction of race relations, self-identity, and community in an early 1980s New Zealand, Uproar comes from the co-directing team of Paul Middleditch and Hamish Bennett and after a brilliant reception after it’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, this uplifting, hilarious, and touching film served as the opening night feature for the Brisbane International Film Festival!
Uproar follows 17-year-old Māori boy, Josh (Julian Dennison, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople) who’s passive yet endearing nature has let him coast through his life as an outcast, despite Josh being a natural performer at heart. However, that persona covers his deep desire to find his authentic identity, which is a struggle for Josh as he is still grieving the recent passing of his father, and the fact that his older brother (James Rolleston, Boy) is the former captain of the First XV rugby team at his prestigious all-boys school. Not too mention, being a Māori boy during a time of racially motivated unrest in New Zealand forces him ever further to the outskirts.
One person who sees the inner performer in Josh is his drama teacher, Mr Madigan (Rhys Darby, Flight of the Conchords), who takes Josh under his wing to develop his voice through acting. However, where no one else sees Josh’s talent, his forced hand to play rugby for the school leads him to live a secret double life of arts and sports.
As the racial tension in the country grows even more when the South African rugby team, of who’s country is also fighting their significant racial battle at the time, arrive for the New Zealand rugby tour, a string of anti-racism protests sparks a fire inside of Josh to embrace his culture and whanau (family) to fight for his future and discover his true identity, and use his new found passion for the arts to tell his and his people’s story.
Uproar is a beautiful, authentic, and truly touching story. Taking elements from director Paul Middleditch’s similar upbringing in New Zealand, the relatability of Josh’s story as someone who is trying to discover themselves through various forms of artistic expression, and the subsequent squandering of that expression by the societal and racial aspects of a 1980s New Zealand, drives an emotional engagement into this film. Uproar is designed to be an uplifting film, but the awful racist actions scene in the film will undoubtedly provoke anger and sadness, too. The film plays out like an underdog sporting tale, in which it’s impossible not to barrack for Josh to overcome the adversities that lie before him in order to find himself.
Then on top of that, telling this story through a Māori cultural lens, in an incredibly important time during New Zealand’s history offers a truly unique perspective into the tried and tested coming-of-age narrative. The sense of community and family that is felt in the Māori culture of Uproar signifies the age-old adage of “universality through specificity”. The screenplay (co-written by directors Middleditch and Bennett, and screenwriter Sonia Whiteman) does a fantastic job of bringing that culture to life on the big screen and signify the importance of keeping the Māori culture alive and thriving in New Zealand.
A lot of the feeling is brought to life by a truly breakout star role for Julian Dennison. Dennison’s work, which includes the beloved comedy The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Hollywood acclaim in Deadpool 2, is naturally such a charismatic and jovial performer, which is still on full display throughout Uproar. Dennison’s self-awareness and ability to vulnerably and freely perform comedically lends to some hysterical moments. But it’s the dramatic and emotional nature of his conflictions and identity discovery where he truly shines on screen. Dennison proves in every single frame of Uproar that he has a natural range of acting ability. He also authentically represents his Maori culture with such power and passion, which is on full display during a goosebump inducing audition scene.
Another brilliant performance comes from Rhys Darby, who for years now has won over audiences with his goofball style comedy. Darby is so naturally gifted at making people laugh, and that strength is utilised throughout the film, with off-kilter one-liners and obscure observations. But there is a bleeding-heart compassion to the character of Mr Madigan that it feels only Darby could have pulled off. There are moments in which the way Madigan painfully and compassionately stares at the conflicted Josh that will break hearts. Darby plays Madigan as that teacher we all had in school who always saw the best in us, and wanted to see that light inside shine, and it’s truly beautiful to watch.
The icing on Uproar’s cinematic cake is the banging 1980s soundtrack that blasts through the speakers, causing involuntary and unstoppable toe-tapping and head-bobbing. And with a film so dedicated to the importance of finding your voice through artistic expression, it makes complete sense that the soundtrack of the rebellion is the foundation for this story.
Uproar is an uplifting film that not just highlights an important and heart-breaking time in New Zealand’s tumultuously racial history but is a personal and authentic story of discovering your identity through art and through culture. The unique perspective of the Māori culture brings a new life into this coming-of-age tale, and the lead performance from Julian Dennison will bring an equal amount of laughter and tears throughout this incredible film.
Uproar played at the opening night of the 2023 Brisbane International Film Festival, with the festival running from October 26 to November 5. Tickets are on sale at www.biff.com.au . Uproar will release nationally in Australian cinemas on November 30, courtesy of Kismet.
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