Fitting in has never been easy for Josh Waaka (Julian Dennison) as a Brown young man in an almost all-white New Zealand Christian school. Things were easier for his father (now deceased) and older brother Jamie (James Rolleston) when they were rugby stars who helped it lift championship trophies. And if anyone knows anything about private institutions such as this, they take care of their own as long as their “own” have earned it by doing the same. That’s not to say Jamie and their dad were cowards or traitors or anything like that––they were rugby players who loved the game amidst influential people who loved it too. Josh was just thrown in as a package deal.
At the start of Paul Middleditch and Hamish Bennett’s Uproar begins––the script’s evolution is all over the place: Bennett co-writing alongside Sonia Whiteman, all three getting a “story by” label, and there’s other “concept by” and “based on screenplay” credits too––Josh is finally starting to see what that means; in many respects, he’s never been able to be his own person. He plays rugby like the other men in his family, but not very well and more dutifully than for pleasure. He keeps his head down despite a funny, gregarious nature to avoid ridicule and abuse by students and teachers alike. It’s as if Josh’s goal is to graduate without ever being seen, take the education afforded by his name, and move on.
To where, though? The film is set in 1981, but consider the prevalence of racism throughout the world and the question is still relevant today. If your only shot at success is through being a commodity those in power need to maintain it, where does that leave someone thought of as lacking such value? The answer is, of course, alone. Josh is a Brown man who has been taught to ignore that fact––upholding the school’s superficial motto of “equality” means keeping your mouth shut when you’re the victim of inequality. Because speaking up only hurts. Being proud risks expulsion and his British-born mother Shirley (Minnie Driver) getting fired from her conditional cleaning job at the school.
Maybe Josh would have stayed quiet, too, if not for identity politics and activism infiltrating the game binding his family to this institution. As South Africa’s rugby team tours New Zealand, protests break out at every game to denounce Apartheid––a noble act if not for the reality that those same people fighting for Black Africans they’ve never met are also ignoring the fact the land they occupy was stolen from the Māori people currently being oppressed upon it. To see the violence resulting from this battle on television opens Josh’s eyes to his own persecution. And once it bleeds into his neighborhood via protestors like Samantha (Erana James) and Tui (Mabelle Dennison), he cannot help getting swept into the movement.
Add the attention of Brother Madigan (Rhys Darby), a teacher at the school who also doesn’t quite fit in, to try getting Josh to pursue acting and the teenager is being hit on all sides emotionally, physically, and intellectually. Theater might be his rugby pitch, but is pursuing it realistic? Or would it be wasting time better spent playing along with Principal Slane (Mark Mitchinson) and his mother to toe the line and ensure his family doesn’t fall apart? Because Jamie is on a dark path after an accident takes his ability to play. That the school becomes the reason he starts turning a corner makes upsetting the applecart even riskier––it means they could lose everything.
An effective coming-of-age dramedy must test those boundaries, though. Save a powerfully cathartic, climactic moment for Josh, Uproar might stop short of getting truly angry, but it doesn’t shy from the complexity of what being an outsider means. Shirley was exiled by her family for marrying a Brown man who was then unwelcomed by his family for being white. Josh’s best friend Grace (Jada Fa’atui) is othered even further for being a different type of “Brown.” Racism is portrayed through police brutality, vandalism, and destruction, but it does often stop short of truly engaging with this abuse beyond how it radicalizes Josh. While great for his character arc, it’s perhaps a bit too reductive for the messaging’s potency.
That’s the trouble with feel-good movies such as this: there’s a desire to keep them light for entertainment value despite that tone being incongruous with this subject matter. Middleditch and Bennett do a decent job balancing things, but it might prove too sanitized for its own good if not for Dennison’s charisma and charm carrying it through. He’s fantastic in this leading role, lending authenticity to the shy awkwardness of being unexpectedly singled out, the million-dollar smile when prepared to act a fool and the soulful sorrow of realizing how much generational trauma he’s held onto. Tonal shifts will have some dismissing Uproar as slight, but I think its motives are strong enough to succeed regardless.
Uproar premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.