Posted on Tuesday, October 10th, 2017 by Eric Vespe
Bodied is not the movie I thought it was going to be when I walked into the Fantastic Fest screening. Joseph Kahn‘s previous feature, Detention, is one of those so-crazy-I-can’t-believe-it-exists kind of movies and I think that’s what was in my brain when I sat down to watch his new one.
The premise of Bodied is simple: a young fan is mentored by his idol and his nurtured talent shines. You’ve seen this story before, especially in movies about sports or martial arts, but never quite in this way. Battle Rap is the forum here, not a stadium or a dojo.
You’ll have to forgive me for not knowing Battle Rap was a thing before this film, but I’m very white. My rap knowledge pretty much begins and ends with the likes of Run-D.M.C., The Beastie Boys, Digital Underground and The Sugar Hill Gang.
Considering Eminem produced Bodied, I suppose I expected Battle Rap to be something like 8 Mile. Yes and no. It’s not just about coming up with solid rhymes that tell a story. It’s about sparring with the person you’re up against. It’s about creatively insulting your opponent. Sometimes that means attacking their appearance, style, family, friends, sexuality, religion or race and doing so in an oddly poetic way.
On the surface it seems nasty, but there’s a respect to the craft to be found there. You can say the meanest, most messed up things to someone, but if you do it in a creative way you get props instead of a punch to the face. And it’s not just about being funny; it’s about sentence structure, playing with grammar and using creative allusion.
Battle Rap is a fascinating world where any and everything is fair game, which is refreshing in a society that is (often rightfully) triggered at every perceived slight and transgression.
Kahn dives head first into this interesting art form and, like Battle Rap itself, nobody is safe from being dressed down. He has some strong opinions on anybody wanting to limit speech, whether it comes from a conservative or ultra liberal place, and the movie condemns those who George Carlin would have had a hell of a time lambasting if he were still around: people who focus on words and not context.
The film definitely has a point of view when it comes to free speech, but that subtext is wrapped around a surprisingly touching friendship between Jackie Long‘s reigning Battle Rap champion Behn Grymm and Calum Worthy‘s Wonder Bread white fanboy, Adam.
Adam is obsessed with Battle Rap and Behn takes him under his wing to show him the inner workings of the art. In the process, it’s discovered that Adam has what it takes to compete himself, despite his outwardly square appearance.
The problem is that in order to be the best at what he loves, Adam has to potentially throw away everything else in his life: his distinguished family, his far left wing girlfriend, his standing at school, and maybe even his friendship with Grymm.
There’s some real Shakespearean pathos on display in what should have just been a silly, frenetic movie about charismatic people insulting each other in artful ways and that’s why the audience I saw the film with went absolutely batshit for this movie (it later took home the Fest’s Audience Award). The Battle Rap segments (written by actual Battle Rap Champion Alex Larson) are like watching a live boxing match. The audience reacted just like the background crowd in these sequences. They laughed, they gasped, they applauded and I was right there with them, wholly invested in the drama on display.
Calum Worthy is a big discovery here. The dude looks like he could be Domhnall Gleeson‘s little brother. You may have seen him in Netflix’s great Making a Murderer spoof American Vandal, but this movie really tests him as a performer and he’s absolutely fearless here.
The film is filled with people who should be giant stars in the next couple of years, including Jackie Long, who conveys so much with a glance that you’d think he’d be at the top of every casting director’s list, and Shoniqua Shandai, who commands your attention every time she’s on screen. Jonathan Park and Walter Perez also ooze charisma. There’s not a character in this movie that isn’t perfectly cast.
Kahn comes from a heavy music video background and you see that influence in his shooting style here. The pace is always racing, the camerawork is dynamic, and there’s an energy to this film that you take for granted from filmmakers like Edgar Wright.
I liked Detention a lot, but Bodied is a giant step up for Kahn. It’s just as confrontational in a “this is my movie, screw you if you don’t like it” way, but with so much more on its mind. The amazing thing about Bodied is that it never stops being entertaining while it’s quietly making you reflect on your own feelings on PC culture, just how free should free speech be, and reactionary politics in general.
There’s also a strong statement on the price you have to pay to realize your dreams. Some people can’t pay that toll and those who can lose a piece of themselves to achieve their ambitions may find themselves realizing that the cost wasn’t worth it.
Bodied is way more complex than it has any right being and is a rocking rollercoaster of a viewing experience. Seeing this with a rowdy crowd has proven to be one of my favorite theatrical experiences of 2017 so far and I hope you guys get a similar experience whenever a brave distributor steps up to the plate and puts this out into the world.