Comedy Drama

From Passivism to Activism: A TIFF Review of ‘Uproar’

September 23, 2023Ben MK

From Me Too to Black Lives Matter, the social justice movement has made great strides in recent years. And with social media playing such a huge role in today's activism, it's gotten easier and easier for everyday people to get involved with the causes they feel most passionate about. It's a far cry from how things were a few decades ago, especially during the early 1980s, when exercising one's right to protest often meant putting one's life on the line. And in the coming-of-age dramedy Uproar, writer-directors Hamish Bennett and Paul Middleditch look back on such a time, when New Zealand played host to the South African rugby team, leading to anti-Apartheid and anti-racism protests across the country.

The year is 1981, and in the New Zealand city of Dunedin, 17-year-old Josh Waaka (Julian Dennison) is one of St. Gilbert's College's most unpopular students. An overweight Māori kid in an all-boys school where the majority of students don't look like him, Josh has found fitting in to be an uphill battle, especially when his athletic older brother Jamie (James Rolleston) was one of St. Gilbert's most gifted rugby players. However, when one of his teachers, Brother Madigan (Rhys Darby), suggests that Josh try out for the school drama club, it awakens in Josh an unexpected passion for the stage. Encouraged by Madigan to audition for the National Institute for Dramatic Arts, Josh begins prepping. Little does he realize that he'll soon have to put his new hobby on the back burner, after the country is plunged into turmoil due to the controversy surrounding the visiting South African rugby team and that country's legalized racism, which has stoked the ire of New Zealand's Māori community in particular. Torn between his heritage and his newfound interests, Josh must decide which one is more important. But when push comes to shove, will he find the courage to stand up for what he truly believes in?

A rousing and relatable tale that's made all the more compelling by the weaving-in of historical fact, the result sticks closely to a tried-and-true formula. What makes it stand out, however, is Dennison's funny yet touching portrayal, which perfectly captures his character's emotional upheaval. Bolstered by an equally terrific supporting turn from Minnie Driver as Josh's mom, it's a performance that further solidifies Dennison as one of his generation's brightest stars. More importantly, it helps make Uproar one of the most endearing coming-of-age films in recent memory. And in a genre crowded with movies, that's an achievement worth proclaiming.

Uproar screens under the Special Presentations programme at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 1 hr. 50 min.

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