Ever since he burst onto the screen with his spirited and hilarious performance in 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Kiwi sensation Julian Dennison has charmed audiences with his easy-going character and spot-on comedic timing. But now in Hamish Bennett and Paul Middleditch’s Uproar, the young actor finds a deeply dramatic role that tests his limits as a performer and the result is a soulful and heartfelt performance that will stay with you.
17 year-old high school student Josh Waaka (Julian Dennison) is forced to get off the fence he has actively sat on all his life to stand up for himself, his whanau. and his future in this heartwarming story of identity and self acceptance.
The 1981 Springbok tour was an event that thoroughly divided New Zealand, and for 56 days from July to September 1981, New Zealand 1981 was torn by violent clashes between pro-rugby fans who were determined to watch the games and protestors who were seeking change to help raise awareness for the issue of Apartheid. Filmmakers Hamish Bennett and Paul Middleditch take audiences back to this nation-defining event, and tell an incredibly heartwarming story of a young man trying to find his identity and self in these troubling times. Bennett and Middleditch have crafted a film that is not only reflective of this definitive New Zealand event but also feels completely contemporary as a new generation strives to define who they are and make their voices heard.
Central to the story of Uproar is everyday Kiwi high school student Josh Waaka (Julian Dennison), and this is a part that truly tests Dennison’s acting abilities. And he absolutely shines in the role. While Dennison has become one of the most in-demand comedians out there and has a way of being able to get laiughs out of an audience, Uproar finds him taking on a thoroughly different character and dealing with a very emotional story of personal growth. As the film’s central character, Josh Waaka, Dennison is quiet, reserved and almost mousey, standing out in an all-boys school in Dunedin; he’s a kid who doesn’t fit in, which is made even greater by his bi-cultural Maori/Pakeha heritage. In an era that was so defined by race, heritage and tradition, Josh is a kid who is utterly different and who doesn’t know what he wants out of life.
But when the tumultuous events of the Springbok tour arrive on his doorstep, he’s suddenly confronted with his heritage and his each for answers and truth. And the performance of growth that audiences witness from Dennison will leave them spellbound. While the young actor does get to throw in a few comedic quips here and there, his performance here is far more layered and reserved, and he undertakes a real movement of growth as the character. Through happenstance, he finds a love of theatre and is drawn into discovering his Maori heritage, and grows to love his mother, brother and community in the process. Dennison’s performance is incredibly honest, and you feel a strong sense of growth and self-acceptance as he learns to love himself, his heritage, his whanau and the possibility of what his future could be.
Major applause must also be directed to English actress Mini Driver, who plays Shirley, mother to Josh and his brother Jamie (James Rolleston), who once had great promise as a former junior All Black but who has suffered a terrible injury and depression, and has fallen by the wayside. Driver’s Shirley is a bastion of support for her sons, but she’s also a very ‘by the bootstraps’ kind of woman and won’t let her son wallow in his own self-misery. Battling her own problems and life issues, Driver’s Shirley acts as a compass for Dennison’s Josh, but when he most needs her help, she is there by his side. Rolleston also turns in a solid performance as Jamie and a quiet, somewhat melancholic presence to the film, but when his brother needs him, he’s there, and the Waaka whanau are stronger for it.
Uproar is a film that all New Zealanders can relate to, and its moving message of self-love and acceptance wins through in the end. Through the performance of its key stars and the timeliness of its narrative, Uproar is a film that is sure to become a treasure of the New Zealand film industry, and it makes you proud to be a part of Aotearoa.