Vs. has a social conscience despite its masquerade as a film about a seaside hip-hop battle scene.
The story goes ‘A troubled foster kid uses his scathing word skills to become an unlikely rap battle champion. But when he gets caught up in his own hype, he must confront his past to accept who he really is. VS. is an urban rites-of-passage drama set in the hostile and exciting UK rap battle scene.‘
Connor Swindells is the troubled foster kid ‘Adam‘ who after being abandoned by his mother at a young age gets shunted between foster families, eventually ending up in the care of ‘Fiona‘ (Ruth Sheen) who lives in Southend on Sea. Angry and lonely Adam taking in his environment meets arcade employee ‘Makayla‘ (Fola Evans-Akingbola), after a rocky start the two form a friendship, with Makayla introducing Adam to the world of battle rap.
The scene which includes antagonist ‘Adam Rooney’ played by real-life battle rapper Shotty Horroh, popular young actor Joivan Wade as ‘Blaze’ and UK grime artist Paigey Cakey as one of the few women battle rappers ‘Miss Quotes‘ is full of what you’d expect 0f a seaside rap community. A multi-racial subculture of rebellious young people, needing an outlet for their angst. After a few shaky starts, Adam fits in with his new crew of friends. Soon stealing the limelight quite predictably from Rooney who quite predictably is pissed that his reign and star power is being challenged by this new kid on the block.
What’s most compelling about this film is the story of Adam trying to find peace in the knowledge that his mother has abandoned him. Two scenes are quite powerful, one when he books an appointment at his mother’s hair salon to get his haircut. At that point, she doesn’t know who he is, whereas he’s absolutely aware. The other, when Adam and his mother have an arranged meeting, and Adam unloads years of pent-up hurt. Swindells is a promising young actor, who brings the right amount of emotion to the heart of the story. He has other brilliant moments with Fiona (Sheen), with his caseworker ‘Terry‘ (Nicholas Pinnock) and Makayla (Akingbola). Vs. is in fact, at its strongest when it focuses on Adam’s journey of self-discovery. The rap backdrop does work to help the story along at times, but it seems all a little too Eminem ‘8 Mile‘. First-time feature director Ed Lilly, is quoted as being a fan of the UK battle scene. But it’s not too clear how deeply involved he is with it.
Because ultimately what jars about Vs. is that the set up of the hip-hop battle world is wrapped up in the stereotypical misogynistic, aggressive, irresponsible and homophobic tropes hip hop and rappers are often bound by. Though Rooney is white, he displays all the worst characteristics of a stereotypical rapper. Which doesn’t really do much for tearing down negative perceptions of what’s widely understood as a black culture. I couldn’t help wonder how the narrative would have translated if it were a skateboard crew or boxing club. Rowan Faife, co-founder of the UK’s biggest rap battle movement, Don’t Flop also consulted on the film, and whilst yes there may be true to life tropes which follow hip-hop and its community, it would have been interesting to have Vs. expand on the typical.
Vs. is actually a brilliant story about care, adoption, abandonment, social issues and how young men deal with their pain. It’s interesting to see how this film is being marketed because the rap of it all is least important.
Director: Ed Lilly
Writer: Daniel Hayes | Ed Lilly
Cast: Joivan Wade, Paigey Cakey, Fola Evans-Akingbola, Nicholas Pinnock, Connor Swindells
UK release date: October 19th 2018