Julian Dennison, Rhys Darby, Minnie Driver, James Rolleston, Erana James
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth
… confident presentation and conviction in its storytelling, along with a new personal best performance from Wellington wonder Julian Dennison.
In 1921, in response to the New Zealand Māoris almost winning against the South African Springboks at a rugby match in McLean Park, Napier, a South African journalist sent this cablegram to the Post and Telegraph [presented intentionally so written]:
“BAD ENOUGH HAVING TO PLAY OFFICIALLY DESIGNATED NEW ZEALAND NATIVES, BUT SPECTACLE THOUSANDS EUROPEANS FRANTICALLY CHEERING ON BAND OF COLOURED MEN TO DEFEAT MEMBERS OF OWN RACE WAS TOO MUCH FOR SPRINGBOKS WHO FRANKLY DISGUSTED.”
It’s the kind of histrionic statement that really highlights the spuriousness of the “keep politics out of sport” talking point, typically parroted by those with the privilege of not having their identity brought under scrutiny just because it’s in public view, whereas the presence of anyone else is seen as ‘an issue’. Especially since that proto-caps-lock incident is only one example of the strained relationship between South Africa and New Zealand when it comes to sport and matters of race. Another would be in 1981, just over a decade after the NZRFU agreed to select Māori players for away games in South Africa, and when the Springboks toured New Zealand, and were met with… well, an Uproar.
This forms the backdrop for the coming-of-age story of Josh Waaka (Julian Dennison), an aspiring actor and budding rugby player who has learnt to keep his head down and avoid being the tall brown poppy amongst his Anglo-Saxon classmates and elders.
Julian Dennison’s star has been steadily rising, from his scene-stealing turn in Paper Planes to serving as the emotional core of Hunt for The Wilderpeople and Deadpool 2 (and those shaving ads), but it’s in this role that the lad truly shines as an actor. His bubbling unease at his environment and his place within it, and later liberation as he stops suppressing his own desires, makes for a powerful presence on-screen, alongside the commendable supporting cast like Rhys Darby as his teacher and confidante, Minnie Driver as his mother, and a grown-all-the-way-up James Rolleston (Boy) as his older brother.
As the camera follows Josh trying to navigate life in the midst of general mistreatment and the growing unrest concerning the arrival of the Springboks (the depictions of the riots in particular earn major props for refusing to sugar-coat what actually went down), the very personal story being told aligns with the larger conversation regarding politics and sport, and ends up reaching the same conclusion: The insistence on keeping the two separate, in practicality, amounts to shutting down personality and individuality in athletes and even spectators. It’s the attitude of ‘just shut up and play’, as if they are nothing more than wind-up toys in jerseys, and for a pastime so capable of both creating division and unification as the national sport, it raises intriguing questions about what everyone is really cheering for.
Uproar scores highly just on the strength of its coming-of-age story and its central performance, but then it manages a conversion on top of that and turns that yarn into a microcosm of just how interconnected politics and sport truly are, and not just because people have the audacity to point out such things. It’s a hard-hitter that benefits from confident presentation and conviction in its storytelling, along with a new personal best performance from Wellington wonder Julian Dennison.