UPROAR

★★★★

FINDING YOUR VOICE UNDER THE MOST CHALLENGING OF CIRCUMSTANCES

SXSW SYDNEY REVIEW
By Charlie David Page
18th October 2023

It's always nice walking into a cinema expecting a film to be focused on one thing, and it turns out to be something so much more rich and complex. That was very much my experience with 'Uproar', the latest New Zealand film to bring Julian Dennison home from Hollywood. It's a wonderfully impassioned film full of rich characters, an interwoven tapestry of stories and an array of stunning Aotearoa cinematography. This is the kind of gem you'll watch and want to tell your friends all about.

Josh (Dennison, 'Deadpool 2', 'Godzilla vs Kong') is a boy on the cusp of manhood who has no foothold in the world. He's an exile at his school, he tiptoes around his mum (Minnie Driver, 'Good Will Hunting', Circle of Friends') and injured football star brother Jamie (James Rolleston, 'The Dark Horse', 'Boy'), and his only friend, Grace (Jada Fa'atui) seems to be pushing away from him. When the Springboks roll into town to take on the All Blacks, it ignites a social divide across New Zealand - for those opposing South Africa's racial laws, but also for New Zealand government's own ignorance of Māori rights. As Josh is slowly drawn into this issue, his skills also catch the attention of teacher Brother Madigan (Rhys Darby, 'Jumanji'), who encourages Josh to embrace acting and apply to NIDA. Meanwhile, Jamie is called back to coach the school's football team - but he agrees on the proviso that Josh joins the squad.

This is a beautifully told story that can best be compared in format and style to 'Pride' - a huge compliment in my books. It works on so many levels, dealing with a fish-out-of-water character, race and culture, ambition and destiny, as well as family and responsibility, and doing so with a healthy dose of comedy. The story is loosely based on the formative years of co-director Paul Middleditch, but the entire creative team - including Dennison - have thrown their all into constructing a story that not only resonates for a New Zealand audience, but globally.

SWITCH: 'UPROAR' TRAILER

It's wonderful to watch Dennison flourish in another role that he was clearly proud to be enveloped by - in fact, I learned in the introduction at the SXSW Sydney Australian premiere of the film that he was originally cast in another role and pushed for the lead role. It's clear the film is all the better for it, as he captures the nervous introvert flourishing into an activist powerhouse with aplomb. Particularly when you see his stellar acting entry tape, watched through the perspective of his mum - it's liable to leave you in tears. This role is without a doubt his best performance since 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople'.

Across the board, however, the performances are on par. I didn't expect to love Minnie Driver as much as I did as Josh's mum, but she walks a wonderfully fine line between stern single parent and loving, compassionate caregiver. The story gives good context for her not to have a strong Kiwi accent, making it wonderfully cohesive. Rhys Darby also does supremely well as the ill-fitting teacher at a rugby school, flying under the radar with a drama club while trying to unravel Josh from his cocoon. His role is more heartfelt than humorous which he plays with a surprising ease. Yet it's Mabelle Dennison in the role of Tui, grandmother to one of the younger protesters, who steals every scene she's in. Josh at one point during rehearsals makes reference to the fact he feels as though he's acting; Mabelle Dennison is at no point acting here. She's lived these experiences of hurt and suffering, and you can see that clearly in her face and eyes. She's fixating to watch, and a beautifully realised character to relay the Māori story.

Behind the scenes, there's barely a step out of place either. Collaboratively, the creative team of Middleditch, co-director and co-writer Hamish Bennett, co-writer Sonia Whiteman and cinematographer Maria Ines Manchego make Dunedin look like a million bucks. The protest scenes in particular come off with an immense power, feeling genuine and dangerous, and when the protesters start to do the haka in front of an intimidating line of police officers, it was moving and intimidating enough to make my stomach swirl. Still, it's the most intimate moments that grab you most of all: small conversations between Josh and his mum about a photo of his deceased dad; Madigan telling Josh his position on racism but that he's afraid he'll be fired if he stands up; Josh telling Tui, "I didn't know all that about your people," and her reply, "Darling, they're your people too." From the script through to execution through to edit, it's handled with a generosity of heart, a wealth of compassion, and above all, a desire for understanding that we're all in this together.

It works on so many levels, dealing with a fish-out-of-water character, race and culture, ambition and destiny, as well as family and responsibility, and doing so with a healthy dose of comedy.

It's not just that everything is technically on on point, it's that this film makes you feel. It makes you feel appreciation and loss for your loved ones. It makes you feel anger and dismay at the treatment of Māori people. It makes you feel hope for Josh as he takes to the rugby field to play as a part of a team, and to the stage as he learns what his strengths are and as he finds himself. The emotion isn't forced, it comes naturally through genuine and honest storytelling, beautiful and truthful performances, and creative collaboration. It's a wonderfully interwoven tale, complex and detailed, skilfully crafted and intelligently handled. It's a real pleasure to have your heart filled to the brim by cinema in the way 'Uproar' manages to do.

It's also impossible not to make comparisons between 1981 New Zealand and Australia's recent referendum. One of the most powerful moments is when Tui makes a quietly compelling speech about why Māori people are still angry; because they had not received the land they were promised by New Zealand's government. It's a gentle reminder of the role of colonialists in working with indigenous people to ensure there's fairness and equality in their lives, and that's what Australia's Voice to Parliament referendum was all about. Set more than 40 years ago, 'Uproar' is a reminder we here across the Tasman have a long way to go.

It would be hard not to recommend 'Uproar' - it's a near-perfect film. If you need something to make your heart swell, then this is the film for you. If you're looking for a slice of history, then this is the film for you. If you love a good coming-of-age story, then this is the film for you. There are a lot of personal experiences that have been distilled into this film, and you feel it in every line, every character, every scene. It's a living, breathing testament to not only events past, but those still being lived through. Watch this wonderful film, share those experiences, don't ever forget them.

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