BEIRUT: Sometimes David does beat Goliath, as the small independent film finds its way onto the Lebanese silver screen, and grabs hold of an entire audience for its duration.
Rare as that may be, Ed Lilly’s debut feature VS., a film about Adam, a troubled foster-teen, who is introduced to the “no limits” world of UK battle-rap, where his aggression and sharp lyricism quickly make him a controversial fan favorite.
At its surface this film might seem like the run of the mill, 8-Mile wannabe merged with a little bit of Step-Up, but contrary to this point of view, VS. shines on its own, dishing out a solid narrative with an engaging protagonist, and packs quite the punch with its overarching theme.
In VS. director Lilly creates a dynamic world full of action, humor, and roasting.
Touching on themes of family, gender and sexuality the film is chockfull of a series of unpredictable turns that challenges the posturing machismo image of the battle rap scene.
The 17-year-old protagonist, Adam’s behavioral and anger issues are a side effect of his struggle from spending most of his life within the foster care system.
His journey in the film, his narrative arc, is about him finding his voice but more importantly his self-worth through the new and exciting world of battle-rap.
It’s an intriguing element to take on for a feature-length film – no dance battles, no loud music, simply two people: one becoming the most powerful person for a few minutes, and the other the most vulnerable.
A great premise for a drama, and quite a challenge for all involved.
Another powerful element that VS. does is its merger of the UK battle rap culture as a vehicle to touch on deeper issues about what it means to be a good parent, sexuality, and identity – three very relevant topics in the current state of the world.
VS. has some great visual moments, though it’s clear that Lilly wanted the audience to feel as close to the characters as possible – opting for close ups and hand-held shots for the majority of the film.
The performance by lead actor Connor Swindells is what truly captivates.
His quick-wittedness and commanding presence draws you in deeper into the character’s world and it is quite easy to empathize.
Swindells’s vulnerability on screen and personification of Adam’s personal agonies was spot on, but what entertains most is seeing this young actor perfecting the vernacular, the nuances, and mannerisms in the rap battles.
It’s completely natural, grounded, and believable.
The rest of the cast is a great cluster surrounding Swindells and they play off of each other harmoniously.
The entire list of characters in this film is all complex and layered, which is truly wonderful to see – no one was clean or free from sin, they each had their scars and flaws.
All the elements within this film worked, and nothing feels out of place or underused.
In a world that has turned words into the most harmful weapons, think of the toxicity in social media, a film like VS. brings that to the surface and shows how powerful expression can be, and how important it is to have one’s voice heard.
By putting issues of sexism, homophobia, and misogyny into spotlight, Lilly and team engage in those issues and don’t shy away from how hard lyricism is.
VS. is surprising and fresh, landing every narrative beat and poetic punch resulting in the breaking down of the preconceptions most have about the genre.
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