Fantasia 2018 coverage continues with Joseph Kahn’s rap battle film Bodied, which has been garnering outstanding reviews as a festival circuit favourite.
Let’s bitch it out…
I had very little idea what to expect heading into Bodied. Several years ago I caught Kahn’s directorial debut, Detention (featuring a pre-Hunger Games Josh Hutcherson), which polarized audiences with its unique deconstruction of slasher film tropes. That film suffered from an excessive amount of ideas, not all of which worked (or worked together), but Detention was nothing if not ambitious. It certainly marked Kahn as a director to keep an eye on.
Fast forward to 2017 and Bodied emerged as the film to see at TIFF’s Midnight Madness (it eventually won the coveted audience award). Considering the film’s niche focus on a community well outside of the mainstream and the expectation that Midnight Madness films are traditionally horror films, Bodied‘s win was surprising to say the least.
Watching the film is an…interesting experience. The plot summary is as follows: “Adam (Calum Worthy), a progressive graduate student, finds success and sparks outrage when his interest in battle rap as a thesis subject becomes a competitive obsession.” This perfectly encapsulates the film’s premise, yet also completely fails to do justice to the film’s critical deconstruction of political correctness, racism and self-destructive tendencies.
Kahn expertly uses the opening sequence to set the stage (literally): the film opens in the middle of a rap battle, dropping the audience right into the middle of a ring of onlookers watching as two men take turns verbally tearing the other to shreds. The camera is as much a figure in the action as the actors; poetic soliloquies peppered with racist, misogynistic and other inflammatory remarks are hurled at the camera, which acts as a stand-in for the opponent. Each point is underscored by the roaring approval of the captive audience and emphasized by cartoonishly stylized visual accompaniments such as fake gun bursts.
In this frenzy of spectators are Adam and his girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold). He is fangirl-levels of enthusiastic while she is demonstrably less enthused. Their introductory exposition helps to establish the foundations of rap battle culture, while also clearly illustrating how ill-suited they are as romantic partners. This gulf is initially played for comedy, then rapidly shifts into awkwardness before escalating into full-blown warfare (a narrative arc that mirrors Adam’s career as a burgeoning rap battle performer).
Bodied is an extremely provocative and challenging film. Unlike most reviews, I can’t claim to be objective; I actively disliked the film for the first thirty minutes and repeatedly considered turning it off. It is aggressive, unlikable and refuses to ease the audience into its world. What keep me going initially is Bodied‘s high energy – Kahn’s constantly moving camera work, the lively performances and the music-video like editing – all of which keeps the film moving at a break neck speed. Despite this, early on it is difficult to sympathize with the characters.
It isn’t until the action shifts to LA for a preliminary rap battle competition hosted by a spoiled teenager in a cockroach infested Los Angeles basement that Bodied finds its footing. At this point a crew of sorts has sprung up around Adam, including his idol Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), as well as his initial sparring opponent Prospek (Kahn regular Jonathan Park), cartoonish Che Corleone (Walter Perez) and lone female Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai). With the underdog vibe and comedic set up firmly established, the film appears to be settling into a groove, on the cusp of a somewhat conventional sports narrative.
This is all a ruse. Kahn plays up expectations and then undermines them, destabilizing character arcs and playing the audience’s sympathies against them. The film may be presented by Eminem and bear a passing resemblance in content and visual aesthetic to 8 Mile, but there is no redemptive, uplifting moral or emotional message to be found. There are plenty of laughs (awkward and otherwise), as well as what appears on the surface to be character victories, but at its heart, Bodied is a bleak, dark tale about how Adam‘s obsession completely ruins his life and the lives of everyone around him.
The screenplay frequently plays these moments of pathos for comedy, but the humour is either a mask or a trap for astute observations and critical dialogues about race and racism; sexism and misogyny; academia and learned knowledge; online identity and personal identity; and hype and the pursuit of fame. Nearly every character is victimized, typecast or felled by these forces. No one escapes unscathed, resulting in one hell of a downer film that somehow also manages to be a legitimate crowd-pleaser.
None of this would work without Worthy’s fearless performance. Styled in both clothes and mannerisms like the whitest guy to ever walk into a racialized environment, Adam is simultaneously a rap battle prodigy, a social misfit, and the living embodiment of white privilege. He’s the film’s protagonist and its antagonist, shifting seamlessly between meek, ignorant and idealistic and angry, out of control and combustible. It’s a controlled, masterful performance that vibrates onscreen, anchoring a film that isn’t afraid to be confrontational, provocative and uncomfortable. Consider Bodied Worthy’s break out role and keep an eye on this seemingly unassuming actor moving forward.
The Bottom Line: Kahn has somehow crafted a feel-good midnight madness film for the dude bros that doubles as a scathing critique of many of society’s most pressing issues and woes. Bodied is one of the most difficult and rewarding films I’ve seen in ages. Its status as an audience award winner and festival favourite is well-earned; audiences should definitely seek the film out when it is released by YouTube Red on its streaming service (date TBD).