Review: Uproar – Torn between two sides with a heart in the middle

Directed by Hamish Bennett, Paul Middleditch
Starring Julian Dennison, Minnie Driver, James Rolleston


Apartheid had South Africa banned from international sporting events like Australian cricket and the FIFA World Cup. It also caused a stir when South Africa’s white-only rugby team, the Springboks, were to tour New Zealand. Uproar takes place during this time of protests and tumult, with a teen boy torn between keeping quiet and taking a stand. He’s torn between his family and his friends, between rugby and acting. And the film itself is torn between comedy and drama. But even so, this indecisiveness is saved by great acting and a few heartrending and heartwarming speeches.

Josh (Julian Dennison) lives in Dunedin. He has a paper route, a mother who’s always working (Minnie Driver), and a star rugby player brother who’s fallen apart because of an injury (James Rolleston). He eats his lunch alone in the school library, and he just wants to live quietly. But he gets roped into playing on the school’s best rugby team, his best friend joins a protest group, and he finds a burning talent for acting within himself. So whether he likes it or not, he’ll have to start making choices.

After his breakout role as the feisty foster kid Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Julian Dennison has had some choice roles as comedic sidekicks but few dramatic ones. And yet, his ability to do both is what made Ricky Baker such a star. Uproar is a comedy/drama that seems to know this but doesn’t get the balance right and ends up being more drama than comedy (despite the marketing). And it’s clear that Dennison has the skill to lead a drama, with his impassioned acting audition being the centrepiece of this film and far outshining the protest. So the odd splashes of comedy jerk you around while you are trying to enjoy the powerful dramatic acting. Take the protest scene, for example: while a lady is getting her skull fractured, Josh is fumbling around for his glasses like Velma from Scooby Doo. It’s viscerally emotional in one shot, then surprisingly silly in the next. There are a handful of moments like this where it feels as if the two writers, the two directors, or perhaps the producers were pulling the film towards comedy when a more focused approach was necessary.

But if you can forgive the occasional tonal heel turn (and cliché villain), you’ll find a warmhearted ensemble piece about loss, trauma, family, isolation, and standing up for yourself. Cleverly, each of the main cast members has an affecting personal story that helps Josh grow—his mother learns to let Josh make his own decisions, his brother finds a new purpose in coaching, his friend stands up for their people, and his teacher risks his job to help Josh. Pair this considerate writing with a few Oscar-worthy performances—Julian Dennison’s mother, Mabelle Dennison, being the most surprising—and you’ll find another exciting piece of New Zealand cinema.