Feb 2, 2024 Film & TV
The raw nerve that Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament struck on its first performances in 1980–81 was all the more painful, and necessary, given the climate the play arrived in: the Springbok tour and its protests. It was a watershed moment in modern New Zealand history, a time when the falsities we told ourselves about New Zealand’s ‘good’ race relations were exposed to the light. Now heralded as one of New Zealand’s greatest plays, Lament directly confronted retrograde modes of masculinity that New Zealanders still struggle with, though the play itself has since been enfolded into the cultural lexicon, confrontational title intact. We performed it in my high-school drama class.
Foreskin’s Lament is routinely invoked throughout Uproar, Hamish Bennett and Paul Middleditch’s buzzy new coming-of-age dramedy set during the Springbok tour, as one of the holy, radical texts that is primed to blow up the carefully controlled, repressed life of Josh Waaka (Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Julian Dennison). Josh is a teenage wallflower growing up as one of the few Māori in a snooty Dunedin boarding school. Like Lament, Uproar is about coming of age as a Kiwi teenager, codes of masculinity and racism, and rugby as an obliterating cultural force in provincial New Zealand — though Uproar’s approach diverges significantly from the cold-light-of-morning harshness of McGee’s play.
Featuring as close to an all-star cast as a local film is likely to get, Uproar is one of the biggest New Zealand films on the release calendar this year, the sophomore feature of Bennett, whose gentle but wholly compelling Bellbird showcased a talent for modest, deeply felt and innately New Zealand stories. He’s here paired with Paul Middleditch, director of Wellington-set divorce dramedy Separation City, as well as Rapture-Palooza, a star-studded American apocalypse comedy featuring Anna Kendrick and Craig Robinson. The recent local trend of pairing two filmmakers together can at times feel odd, leading to a muddled impression in the fabric of the film itself — as with last year’s Whina. From whose artistic perspective is this story being told? In Uproar, it’s clear that all involved are chasing the crowd-pleasing hits that have come to define New Zealand cinema in the modern era, films like The Dark Horse and Daffodils, The Breaker-Upperers and this year’s Red, White & Brass. Above everything, there’s the Waititi of it all. New Zealand films tend to follow the lead of their eras’ most exalted directors. After Jane Campion’s success with The Piano, we saw a revival of the New Zealand gothic, with young, idiosyncratic female filmmakers to the fore. After Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings, splatter horror and fantasy had a resurgence. New Zealand remains in the thrall of the Waititi era, his specific blend of wistful drama and low-key comedy a limiting force in New Zealand cinema, with plenty of imitators but few able to recapture what made Boy and Wilderpeople such hits.
Thankfully, what Uproar is doing is slightly different, closer to British crowd pleasers like Pride or Made in Dagenham, which operate on a less goofy register and lean more deeply into the darker aspects of their stories (though with the obligatory happy resolution by story’s end). The main thrust of the story concerns Josh’s slow awakening to the oppressiveness of his small, conservative, Pākehā city, and the way forces both within and without have conspired to constrict his self-expression and understanding of his culture. This involves a number of dovetailing subplots that act together to spark something in Josh — first, he is encouraged to join a drama club by his sensitive and jovial English teacher Brother Madigan (Rhys Darby). Meanwhile, his mother Shirley (Minnie Driver) manoeuvres Josh into the school’s prestigious first XV, part of a package deal when bullish Principal Slane (Mark Mitchinson) headhunts Josh’s older brother Jamie (James Rolleston), an injured one-time rugby star, to coach their team. Josh is also slowly drawn into the unrest of the tour, as the Springboks edge closer to their Dunedin game, and Josh meets political activist Samantha (Erana James), who nicknames him ‘Brown Boy’, an element Josh has attempted to ignore within himself for his entire life.
It’s a lot to pack into 110 minutes. For the most part, Uproar executes its beats with elegance and surety, particularly in the emotional journey of Josh. If not much in the film feels especially new, it is a journey worth taking for the nuance and care the directors and actors have put into the crafting of these characters, and of the Dunedin of 1981 that they inhabit. There is not a weak link in the entire cast, every member bringing their A-game. Dennison launches himself confidently forward from Ricky Baker here — he’s funny, but he’s not only funny. There’s pain, sadness, uncertainty and rage hovering beneath the surface, reminiscent of another fine coming-of-age dramedy of 2023, the Canadian film I Like Movies. It was refreshing for me, as a larger person, to see a character who is big but whose weight is not the sum of their persona. Josh plays rugby, explores theatre, marches in protests — he’s not just ‘the fat kid’. Also fantastic is Rolleston, who finds his own path away from his own child-star moment, in Boy. As the waylaid, despondent Jamie, there’s a genuine, haunting sadness in Rolleston’s eyes that makes his moments of joy and liberation all the brighter when they eventually come. Erana James, herself a revelation at a younger age in the underrated The Changeover, is fiery and deeply charismatic here. Perhaps most compelling, though, is Darby as the Dead Poets-adjacent Brother Madigan. His performance is impressively soulful and layered, revealing just enough of his character’s own longing to leave a lasting impression. He’s rarely been better utilised.
If I’m being honest, I feel desperately tired of this modern impulse to redirect so many of our stories into ‘uplifting’ territory. At a screening of Topless Women Talk About Their Lives that I hosted earlier this year, an audience member asked the filmmakers something along the lines of, ‘why are New Zealand films always so grim?’, ignoring the fact that this hasn’t been true about New Zealand film for years — largely to its detriment. Life is rarely uplifting, so why do we expect our films to be? We struck back so intensely against the New Zealand gothic ethos of misery and bleakness that I fear we may have corrected too far the other way. The trend toward uplift, toward ‘the crowd pleaser’, brings with it the anathema of risk or discomfort.
When Uproar falters, it’s because it’s trying too hard to put a neat, unchallenging bow on tangled, complex issues. The tour is brought to the forefront of the story, while it would’ve been subtler and more powerful as background context. The conclusions the film draws from this period, one of the ugliest in modern New Zealand history, feel too neat in their attempts to wrap the story up cleanly — the film acknowledges Josh’s discovery of his culture, an important and commendable aspect, but seems unequipped to grapple with the larger implications of the tour’s unrest. The rendering of a clash between protesters and police is notable for its rough-hewn immediacy, but the film seems to want to defang the unflattering portrayal of police brutalising unarmed protesters by including a ‘nice cop’ character played by kind-faced actor Craig Hall, who is key to bringing some of the really bad racists to justice by film’s end.
With Uproar, we have perhaps the best possible iteration of this kind of film New Zealand is likely to get, one that is sensitively wrought, well acted and filmically savvy. Its production design is robust, and you really feel as though you are watching a story set in the 1980s — a bar not every period film, even those with higher budgets than Uproar, achieves. The lensing of the film, from Maria Ines Manchego, is handsome and casts a loving eye over the Dunedin landscape, without ever retreating into the overly schmaltzy. Most significantly, the film is unafraid of its characters’ messier and more human aspects. There are no small roles in Bennett and Middleditch’s film, with moments for excellent undersung local talent such as Mitchinson and Hall — as well as Byron Coll as a lily-livered coach, and Mabelle Dennison (real-life mother of Julian) as a kuia instrumental to Josh’s awakening — to take their roles and make something special out of them. It’s this sense of attentiveness, of concern and faith in everyday people, that permits Uproar to play to the crowd a bit, even as it veers away from the provocative instincts of its foundational text, Foreskin’s Lament. Whether Uproar has the power to become a lasting classic in the same way (and I do sense a local hit in the works here) remains to be seen. If New Zealanders are looking for uplift, they could do a hell of a lot worse.
Directed by Paul Middleditch & Hamish Bennett