Uproar (M. 110 minutes)
This light-hearted drama with deadly serious intent is as good-natured as its charismatic young lead actor, Julian Dennison. Eight years have passed since the young Maori stole the show from the effortlessly amiable Sam Neill in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, when he played a foster child who is quite the handful.
In Uproar, Dennison appears as Josh Waaka, a 17-year-old day student at St Gilbert's School, a Catholic boys school in Dunedin. The stunning South Island city is often portrayed here as a blustery, rainy place whenever doors to the outside are open, which may be an in-joke for New Zealanders but is still amusing.
Josh's life at home is a struggle but at least he is settled and secure. He lives with his harried single mum, Shirley (Minnie Driver) works at several jobs, and his older brother Jamie (James Rolleston, from Boy), a former junior All Black, is recuperating from a leg injury.
Josh is however a magnet for the school bullies. It just makes him more stay-at-home, more of a recluse at school. The library is a good safe place where the bullies cannot bother him.
Unfortunately for Josh, the racist schoolyard bullying is just about to become a whole lot worse. It's 1981, and the Springboks rugby team has arrived in the country, sparking protests nationwide against their home country, still an apartheid regime. Community tensions were very heightened in New Zealand society, and the world was watching.
Across the sea in Australia, the Springboks hadn't been invited to play since 1971, but in New Zealand in the 1980s the forces backing the All Blacks to compete against the Springboks were formidable. A tour of matches between these top international teams had been arranged at venues around the country, including in Dunedin.
The tour was likely to be a showdown between the anti-apartheid protesters, whose ranks were swelling with new Maori members, and the police and the rugby diehards who had a fierce belief that there was no place for politics in sport.
An empathetic teacher, Madigan (Rhys Darby), is onside. He tries to winkle Josh out of his shell with invitations to do an interpretative reading in front of the English class.
Josh declines but on another occasion, he reveals his prodigious skills when making an audition tape for drama school in Australia. However, for various reasons, a career in the performing arts seemed an unrealistic career choice for a boy whose mum works three jobs and whose own after-school work is delivering circulars to local letter boxes.
Uproar is directed by Paul Middleditch and Maori filmmaker Hamish Bennett, who both collaborated with Sonia Whiteman on the screenplay.
Josh discovers that in 1981 in New Zealand, a society polarised, sitting on the fence is no longer an option and he must acknowledge his Maori identity. It is touching that the character who makes this plain to him is a character played by the actor's mother, Mabelle Dennison, and by Josh's female Maori friends.
As if in counterpoint to the serious moments, the soundtrack lifts the mood. Nothing quite prepares us, though, for the Maori haka that is performed spontaneously by anti-apartheid protesters as they face off against police.
With video camera in hand, Josh experiences the rousing unique performance through the lens, before we can see that the war dance speaks to him directly to the "brown boy" in him. A stirring moment.
All the while Josh has been equivocating. As a mixed-race kid, with a white Anglo mother, he has been a fence sitter.
There is empathy for him and his mum, who has struggled, through her life choices, to be accepted by her own and her husband's family.
The folksy charm of this coming-of-age story keeps faith with the comedy label, though drama with comic elements describes it better.
It is familiar territory, but the lead performance is terrific, and there is plenty of the New Zealand humour to savour.