Film Review – Uproar



New Zealand, 1981. This was a time of major social strife. The era of Apartheid was alive in South Africa, which sparked global protests. It must’ve been a strange time to grow up, and yet that is where our protagonist, Josh (Julian Dennison) finds himself. Josh is a teen of Māori heritage, attending a majority white school that is more concerned with their rugby team than what is happening around the world. When news of the South African rugby team going on a tour of New Zealand, social activists take arms. This forces Josh to confront his own cultural identity, his place within his hometown, and to decide whether he should go along with the status quo or take a stand for the greater good.

Uproar (2023) has a lot of parts operating simultaneously. Directors Paul Middleditch and Hamish Bennett (who also cowrite with Sonia Whiteman) attempt to juggle a coming-of-age structure with a broader perspective of race. They create a narrative of multi-dimensional textures. The result…kind of works. Josh operates at the center position, crisscrossing different storylines that are promising on their own, but don’t quite mesh that well together. That might be the film’s biggest weakness, in how the individual pieces standout, but the final picture is a little fuzzy.


For example, one arc has Josh working with his brother Jamie (James Rolleston) as members of their school’s rugby team. This proves to be difficult for Josh, given the constant bullying from other players. Not only that, but the increasing protests has sparked something inside of him, causing him to gravitate to a cultural community center and to Samantha (Erana James) a passionate activist. Soon enough, we find Josh participating in violent marches, to the disapproval of the school and his mother (Minnie Driver). Oh, and to make things more complicated, Josh has also found an interest in the dramatic arts, with his teacher (Rhys Darby) encouraging him to explore acting as a possible career.

See what I mean? This is a lot to take in, and the editing barely manages to keep everything organized. There are instances where the structure feels unbalanced. For much of the runtime, the direction adheres to an intimate, grounded style. But when we get scenes such as the march, or a sequence with Josh valiantly trying his best on the rugby field, the transitions become abrupt and jarring. One moment has Josh delivering a passion-filled monologue, and then a few minutes later he watches people debate intensely over apartheid. And then a few minutes after that, Josh is caught in the middle of a training sequence with his brother. It’s like we are watching separate stories taking place, with Josh being the one common denominator between them.

Maybe that’s the point. Perhaps all these different factors are meant to put Josh in a position where he must choose whom he wants to be as a person. Early on, Josh is made to be indecisive, unsure of himself, and an outcast amongst his peers. He is so detached from his heritage that when he tells an elder that he never knew of her people’s history, she corrects him by saying that it’s his people too. The heart of Uproarinvolves Josh growing into himself, gaining his own voice, and becoming more aware of his individuality. This, of course, is not easy. Certain social structures and institutionalized racism are eager to wear him down. Coming-of-age stories are always filled with uneasiness, awkward situations, and moments of embarrassment. The fact that Josh must navigate all this along with the wider racial implications make it even more difficult.


The production’s big accomplishment is in the casting. All the participants – from Minnie Driver, Rhys Darby, James Rolleston, Erana James, etc. – deliver strong performances. But it is Julian Dennison in the lead role that makes the film worth watching. Some of you may remember Dennison as the kid in Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016). Even at a young age, he demonstrated a keen sense of comedic timing along with the vulnerability and warmth to handle dramatic material. Now that he is a little older and more grown, Dennison has the added benefit of experience in his toolbelt. He inhabits Josh with various degrees of emotion but remains constantly believable. He can make us laugh with his quick wit or pull at our heartstrings with tangible feeling. One of the biggest scenes feature Josh performing a haka – a ceremonial Māori dance. The passion Dennison puts into the dance catches us off guard but is insightful in showing the emotion the character has held within himself.

I’m not so sure Uproar wraps all its narrative threads in a satisfactory way. I don’t need my stories to be neat and tidy and topped with a bow. But they do need to have a sense of completion, as though there is nothing else that needs to be said. That isn’t quite the case here, as many storylines (and even characters) just sort of fall to the wayside the further along we go. And yet, the performances keep us glued in. The ambition to tackle heavy themes make this an engaging and heartfelt viewing experience. It takes a well-worn blueprint and reconfigures it with subject matter some may not be privy to. And for that, it should be commended.




Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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