Uproar (2024)

Julian Dennison and Minnie Driver play mother and son in “Uproar”

Uplifting ‘Uproar’ will have you cheering loudly

      Coming-of-age stories rarely scale the heights of “Uproar,” a bold and ambitious New Zealand import about an ostracized teen learning to embrace his Maori heritage and take a stand against racism the world over. The film, co-directed by Paul Middleditch and Hamish Bennett is very much akin to the Oscar-winning “Coda” in that it encompasses similar themes of family, discrimination and learning to love oneself. 

    Just swap out hearing loss in a Massachusetts coastal town for the marginalization of indigenous people in a small New Zealand community and you can easily figure out where “Uproar” is headed. Writers Bennett and Sonia Whiteman practically tick off the “Coda” plot points in presenting an economically stressed clan shepherded by a strong, unbending mother of two (Minnie Driver) whose oldest (James Rolleston) is angry and bitter and whose youngest (Julian Dennison) discovers a hidden talent that conflicts with what’s expected of him. In this case, that would be 17-year-old Josh Waaka, a bullied, overweight milquetoast of mixed race whose colorfully flamboyant teacher (a terrific Rhys Darby) encourages him to indulge an uncanny gift for acting. 

     Such a blatant lack of originality would normally doom a movie, but “Uproar” defies the odds by slathering on the charm via the endlessly endearing Dennison in his first major role since dazzling alongside Sam Neill in Taika Waititi’s hilarious “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” Once again, the now grown-up Dennison upstages his more famous co-stars with his natural ability to command a scene with an infectious blend of charisma and likability. 

       He’s literally larger than life, sporting a sumo wrestler physique and an endearing smile that instantly elicits an even greater sense of empathy. Your heart breaks for a kid who seemingly has everything going against him, from his fatherless family’s financial straits to his constantly being picked on by ever-crueler peers detesting him simply because he’s dark-skinned and obese. It’s so awful for Josh that he feels the need to retreat to the school library so he can simply eat his lunch in peace. 

     His misery is compounded by having to live in the shadow of his older brother, Jamie (Rolleston), the school’s legendary rugby star whose professional career was ended by a leg injury that’s left him so morose he threatens to drown in self-pity. Their widowed mum, Shirley (Driver in an unfortunate wig of thick blonde curls), is only slightly less miserable, barely containing her rancor over being tasked with keeping Josh’s school spic and span to make ends meet.  So, imagine the reaction if Josh, a la “Coda,” dares approach her about his want to audition for a spot in a prestigious acting academy in Australia. 

    If that weren’t enough setup, the writers deepen the stakes for Josh by getting him involved in the real-life protests waged against Apartheid during the South African rugby team’s tour of New Zealand in 1981. At first, he dismisses such upheaval as a lark that has captured too much attention by his one and only pal, Grace (Jada Fa’atui), who like Josh is of Maori descent. But once he’s drawn into the fray by Grace’s outspoken mentor, Samantha (Erana James), his reluctance to take part in the violent street protests begins to evolve. As does his pride and acceptance of his heritage. 

    The beauty of the movie is that we get the message, too. And it’s driven home via a moving soliloquy by an elder Maori woman (played by Dennison’s mother, Mabelle Dennison) about what it feels like to be run off your land and treated as an outsider by the invaders. It’s a stirring moment that inspires you to want to join the cause. 

     Sure, the movie overshoots its aim by attempting to be a little bit about everything, including Josh being pressed into service on his school’s overprioritized rugby team. But darned if it doesn’t work. And the reason I believe it resonates is because the script is based on Middleditch’s own experiences growing up in New Zealand in the 1970s and ’80s, a time when his school was so fixated on the fates of its rugby team that it was deaf to the worldwide racism the visiting South Africans personified.

     Because it’s predicated on actual events, the film exhibits an authenticity that renders its characters as real people with real lives that are messy and complicated. There’s an equal amount of truth in a citizenry too easily forgetting that hardship doesn’t differentiate between race and color. 

    It’s interesting how closely the protests opposing Apartheid in 1981 resemble the Black Lives Matter marches from four years ago, when senseless violence erupted because the tensions between police and demonstrators were permitted to escalate unchecked. I doubt “Uproar” will alter that indifference, but it’s nice that it tries. It’s even nicer that it’s delivered with this much humor and heart, as Josh – like Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” – learns the power of his destiny was in his hands all along. He just needed a little help from his new friends to realize it. 

Movie review


Rated: PG-13 for strong language, a crude gesture, some violence, racism, thematic material

Cast: Julian Dennison, Minnie Driver, Rhys Darby, Erana James, James Rolleston and Jada Fa’atui

Directors: Paul Middleditch and Hamish Bennett

Writers: Hamish Bennett and Sonia Whiteman

Runtime: 110 minutes

Where: In theaters

Grade: B+

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