UK Release Date: 19th October 2018
Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: Ed Lilly
Writer: Ed Lilly, Daniel Hayes
Starring: Connor Swindells, Fola Evans-Akingbola, Joivan Wade, Ruth Sheen, Emily Taaffe, Shotty Horroh, Paige Meade
Synopsis: A teen bouncing between foster families channels some of his rage into the world of battle rap.
When you think of underground battle rap, it’s probably not the seaside town of Southend that comes to mind. Indeed, when I entered the cinema to see VS., the only thing I knew about it was the title. So imagine my surprise when, 90 minutes later, I emerged blinking into the sun having seen a very impressive debut feature from Ed Lilly – a voice to keep an eye on in British cinema for the next few years. It takes the slight naffness and cheesy tacky feel of the British seaside and gives it an injection of grungy edge – an injection that comes in the form of multi-syllabic rhyme structures and eloquently delivered personal insults.
Our entry point into this world is Adam (Connor Swindells), who is back in his hometown under the care of foster mother Fiona (Ruth Sheen), after his bad behaviour has seen him kicked out of a number of other families. He meets Mak (Fola Evans-Akingbola) at the amusement arcade where she works and, after they hit it off, she invites him to a regular battle rap night she runs. After a fracas with experienced battler Slaughter (genuine battle veteran Shotty Horroh) that shows he might have a talent, Adam names himself Adversary and jumps into the fray.
It would be easy for a film like VS. to label the battle rap scene as troublesome teenagers shouting at each other and inciting violence. That’s not the approach that Lilly chooses, however, painting battle rap as something akin to boxing – a creative outlet that channels aggression into something less dangerous and more creative. Lilly’s depiction of the battle rap scene positions the battlers as an ersatz family, who get on like a house on fire when they aren’t roasting each other for the pleasure of the live audience and thousands of online followers.
Swindells is a terrific discovery in the lead role. He’s a ball of barely concealed repression, with discomfort that seems to ripple through the skin of his face whenever something cuts him deep. For Adam, rap battles provide him with a creative outlet and a euphoria of recognition that he feels he has never had in his life. He’s exactly the sort of person for whom battle rap is more important than just a fun thing to do in the evenings and it serves as a primal scream of teenage angst. One scene, in which Adam sits for a haircut at the salon owned by his biological mother, uses the inherent awkwardness of a haircut and amplifies it through Swindells’s expressive face.
The supporting cast, too, is very impressive. Fola Evans-Akingbola is compelling as Mak, while real battle rappers Shotty Horroh and Paigey Cakey – who has previously appeared in Attack the Block under the name Paige Meade – inject some verisimilitude into the battles. Lilly helms these sequences with the camera right in the face of the performers, transplanting the audience into the sweaty, sweary world of the ‘anything goes’ raps. Horroh, in particular, excels in these scenes as the closest thing the movie has to a villain.
One of the issues VS. faces is that battle rap has its problems. The lyrics deployed are often lowest common denominator insults, with homophobia and misogyny very much on the agenda. Lilly’s film does question where the line should be in this respect and occasionally condemns characters for going too far, but the movie largely praises the battlers for the verbal eloquence, even if that eloquence is too often devoted to base slurs.
VS. gets by on its believable milieu and likeable characters, leaving behind a resonant portrait of disaffected teenagers channelling their frustration into creativity.
Pop or Poop?
The potentially troubling but always exciting world of battle rap comes rampaging on to the big screen with Ed Lilly’s terrific debut VS. With newcomer Connor Swindells taking the lead as an angry young man with plenty to say, the film is a vibrant and energetic portrayal of what it’s like to be young in modern Britain.
To call it a British 8 Mile is a bit of a facile comparison. This is entirely its own beast, and it’s far better for it.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.