Cheers, Applause for Dennison and Uproar

March 18, 2024

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3 ½ stars

I know little about rugby, the South African national rugby team called the Springboks, or their controversial visit to New Zealand in 1981. My understanding of New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Māori, is nil. And yet, from the outset, Uproar, directed by Paul Middleditch and Hamish Bennett, captured my imagination and stole my heart. While it certainly has much to say about the characters’ time, place, and culture, Uproar does it with a universal voice.

The film stars Julian Dennison (Deadpool 2) as Josh Waaka, a 17-year-old misfit attending the prestigious St. Gilbert’s College, but only because his mom (Minnie Driver) is a janitor. Josh is shy and overweight, and though he is obsessed with rugby, he doesn’t play because his brother, Jamie (James Rolleston), is worshipped by faculty and staff as one of the school’s greatest players, even though he is too injured to play. Every day is a struggle for Josh, not just to fit in but to find a way where he can excel. When his English teacher suggests he come to drama club, Josh discovers he’s “not crap” and decides to audition for drama school. But life has other plans.

Over the years, audiences have watched dozens of underdog stories told with varying degrees of success. The biggest challenge for the storytellers is to keep the audience engaged as they lead them to the usually predictable ending, where the underdog triumphs. Middleditch and Bennett set the bar even higher for themselves by setting Josh’s story at a time when his country and culture were at a crossroads and on a collision course. The directors do an excellent job of weaving all the historical details together while ensuring that Josh’s story stays at the forefront and remains intimate.

Uproar has a big cast, and though most have limited screen time, they all contribute to the story in unique and memorable ways. Rhys Darby is great as the English teacher who sees something special in Josh. Erana James also shines as Samantha, a friend whose pride in her taha Māori (Māori side) and inspires Josh. Minnie Driver is effective as Josh’s mom, a British woman whose marriage to a Māori caused an irreparable rift with her parents. However, the blonde hair she wears in the film – be it a bad wig or a bad dye job – is almost distracting enough for the audience to miss her performance. Historically accurate or not, it should have been either done better or not done at all. 

However, this is Dennison’s movie, and he crushes it. It’s a layered and unpredictable performance. With all that Josh goes through, Dennison never plays him with pathos. Humor: Yes. Intelligence: Yes. With his heart on his sleeve? In every scene. But Dennison never wants the audience to feel pity for Josh. Never. And so nothing prepares you for that final scene where Josh makes his audition tape for drama school, channeling all his rage and frustration through his ancestors to perform a Māori ceremonial dance known as a haka. It gives you goosebumps and lets you know that Josh has finally found his place in the world.


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