'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' favourite Julian Dennison leads this powerful coming-of-age charmer about community, belonging and standing up for what you believe in.
November 23, 2023
The Taika Waititi school of acting gave Julian Dennison one of his first-ever roles in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and James Rolleston his debut in Boy. Seven years after the former and 13 since the latter, the two play brothers in another coming-of-age effort: Uproar. That cheerworthy casting is joined by Our Flag Means Death co-stars Rhys Darby and Minnie Driver in a film that's not only warmhearted, but always feels as if it's practising one of the messages that it's preaching. Set amid 1981's infamous Springbok tour of New Zealand — with South Africa's rugby union team playing games across the nation, and inspiring protests against both apartheid and Aotearoa's treatment of its Māori population as it went — this is a movie about a cultural awakening, and about finding and embracing community.
Behind the lens, Uproar's directors have teamed up, too, with Hamish Bennett helming his second feature after 2019's also-heartfelt Bellbird and Paul Middleditch back in the chair for the first time since 2013's Rapture-Palooza. When it told of a father and son struggling to connect, and just struggling, after the loss of the family matriarch who bound them together, Bellbird traded in the same kind of poignancy that seeps through in this engaging charmer. With its sports-meets-politics narrative, there may be few doubts about where Uproar is headed; however, Bennett and Sonia Whiteman's (The Disposables) script — as based on a concept by Middleditch and first-timer Mark Turnbull, a screenplay by Keith Aberdein (The Last Tattoo) before that, and boasting additional writing by Mario Gaoa (We Are Still Here) and actor Rachel House (Heartbreak High) — knows that reality and movies alike can follow a familiar path and be no less affecting and resonant.
In another memorable addition to his resume that shows his emotional depth, especially in a potent late monologue, Dennison plays Josh Waaka, 17-year-old son to British-born widow Shirley (Driver). He's dutifully in St Gilberts School for Men's 2nd XV when the 1981 tour comes to Dunedin, but largely because much about his existence is dutiful. His father was a local rugby star. His older brother Jamie (Rolleston) was a former Junior All Black before his career was cut short by injury. To make ends meet, Shirley cleans at the school — and imposing Principal Slaine (Mark Mitchinson, Evil Dead Rise) ensures that the Waakas feel grateful. In fact, when Slane requests that Jamie help coach the 1st XV, he's hardly asking. And when Shirley says that he will, she gets the reluctant Josh a spot on the higher team as part of the arrangement, telling him that it'll set him up for life.
Staying out of the public debate about the Springboks is also expected of the St Gilberts' cohort, in a place that's against taking a stand against discrimination yet fine with Josh spending his lunch break alone in the library to avoid his openly racist classmates. But that isn't the community that he wants as his own even before he crosses paths with the marching Samantha (Erana James, Bad Behaviour) while delivering catalogues with his best friend Grace (debutant Jada Fa'atui), and gets a reminder that her Māori heritage is his as well. And, being surrounded by books and silence soon isn't his only option between lessons. English teacher Brother Madigan (Darby) spies a potential actor in Josh, who needs encouraging to join the drama group, then wows his way into auditioning for NIDA in Sydney becoming an option.
Outrage frequently makes its presence known in Uproar's crisply lensed frames: in Samantha decrying the country putting sports above equality in any way that she can, in the engrained prejudice that festers against NZ's Indigenous inhabitants daily, in clashes on the street and even within activist meetings, where saying that you're an ally isn't the same as truly understanding having one's land taken. The film's name also comes into play another way, though, as Josh's existence erupts in chaos. As tales about teens becoming adults often do, Bennett and Middleditch's movie tells of change rippling through almost everything that its protagonist thought that he knew. New causes to champion, new connections to his culture, new dreams to chase, new friends, new futures, a new purpose in life that echoes among his nearest and dearest: compared to the pre-tour status quo, this is indeed an impassioned uproar against just getting by, settling and never speaking up.
Since his time as Ricky Baker, Dennison has enjoyed big-budget stints in Deadpool 2 and Godzilla vs Kong — and in the festive The Christmas Chronicles: Part Two — but this is his best role since getting stranded in the wilderness for Waititi. The likeable pluck and wit that endeared him to audiences then is layered with searing determination and angst here, while never forgetting humour as well. As Jamie is pushed to rediscover more than just his room and his disappointment at fate, Rolleston is also stellar, as he similarly was in The Dead Lands, The Rehearsal and The Breaker Upperers. The subtlety of Darby's kind and caring performance doesn't go unnoticed, either, and nor does the quiet fortitude of Driver's turn.
At the heart of Uproar's key characters, which includes Samantha and Grace, is that other recognisable high-school feeling: being an outsider. That isn't purely an adolescent experience, of course. It hasn't avoided the star player now unable to take to the field, the woman whose marriage wasn't embraced by two families in two countries or the teacher who doesn't fit in — and it certainly hasn't evaded an entire culture that's been made to feel like its home wasn't its own for centuries thanks to the ongoing impact of colonisation, or other First Nations people with similar stories. As it sees and unpacks each of these layers, Uproar sees why living up to its moniker is so important, and also how. It spies the many methods of pushing back and sparking a ruckus. It knows the power of fighting for what's right, just and decent communally. And it wouldn't be as moving without its cast, but that's what coming together means.
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