Opening this very Friday, Ed Lilly’s VS. reinvents precisely no wheels and breaks zero new ground but is a testament to just how comfortingly powerful the underdog drama template can still be when executed with enough skill and fire. Set in Southend, VS. centres around 17-year-old Adam (up-and-comer Connor Swindells). Adam’s an angry, directionless, emotionally-distant young man with a penchant for violence on account of a childhood spent shuffling from place to place in the foster system after his mother gave him up at age five, and his latest move to the seaside town is his last chance. A fan of Hip Hop, he has a chance encounter with underground battle-rap organiser Makayla (Fola Evans-Akingbola) who introduces him to Project Battle, a collaboration between her and Odds (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) designed to allow the wayward youth to channel their energies into an artform that creates a sense of community rather than violence. Adam turns out to have a bit of a knack for battle-rapping when he rips into undefeated champion and general dickbag Slaughter (Shotty Horroh), and you can already guess exactly where this is headed.
8 Mile but in the UK and more socially conscious, which even gets name-checked in the finale to let you know that writers Lilly and Daniel Hayes are aware of what everyone’s first comparison will be, is a strong base to work from. Whilst the exact mechanics of the plotting can at times be inelegant – this is another modern movie based around the Internet that utilises the phrase “going viral” as easy shorthand for “we need the plot to get to this specific place without it taking forever to do so” – and Lilly perhaps throws a little too much sizzle on his steak in regards to additional plots and characters, VS. all works in the moment, regardless. Crowdpleasing movies of the lineage that VS. gladly inserts itself into live or die based on the quality of their stars, direction, and the unique little touches that differentiate the film from their template, and VS. excels at all three. Swindells is a real find and holds down the film’s emotional centre with the skill of an old pro, most evident in his struggles with the reveal that his biological mother also lives in Southend which brings a decade of rage and resentment to the surface, but the entire cast are great, even the non-actors like Shotty and Paigey Cakey.
Lilly’s direction is grounded and realistic but not in the grimy and depressing manner of your typical working-class British dramas. His Southend is a quiet and not especially glamorous place, but it still has a life and vibrancy to it that is neither idealised but also isn’t so caked in shit that it would beggar belief anybody lives there, irrespective of whether they have a choice in the matter. Though his rap battles remain devoted to that grounded direction – the post-film Q&A cited a film like Bodied, which Lilly admitted he enjoyed, as the opposite of his intended visual style – they’re still thrilling displays to watch, all slickly delivered punchlines and technical wizardry with a tangible energy in the delivery and atmosphere. VS.’ position as a film based in British rap and social culture also allows its narrative the chance to weave in criticisms of rap’s deep-seated homophobia and misogyny without becoming too preachy or stumbling into the dicey pit that comes from its protagonist and antagonist being White guys, thanks to the way British culture is based more specifically around class than many other countries’. Whilst one could argue that it uses those issues as shorthand to indicate how much of a prick Slaughter is or when Adam has hit the “fall from grace” part of his arc through the usage in their rhymes, the film also allows time for sweet subplots revolving around homosexuality and challenging unhealthy attitudes towards women. (I also appreciate Wells’ refusal to demonise social services at any point.)
By the time VS. full-on lifts 8 Mile’s ending for its own final battle, I was enjoying myself too much to belabour the obvious debts it owes to other movies or the underdog template in general. It’s a film that sings with a joy de vivre throughout, plays to the bleachers but spits those bars with such a precision and flair that I found it impossible to not be won over. VS. may be a monument to the fact that old standbys of storytelling are still capable of uplifting power when executed in just the right way, but it’s also pure entertainment that’s lovable in its own right. A great little debut.