There’s not a lot of novelty to the “angry kid masters battle rap” formula. But give the rappers British street accents, dropping consonants like they drop rhymes, and you’ve got something worth hearing out.
Even if, you know, you have to play it with the subtitles on.
“VS.” follows Adam, a tantrum-tosser who is the terror of Southend’s foster parenting system.
Adam (Connor Swindells of “The Vanishing”) doesn’t have anger management problems. He has rage-control issues.
We don’t need his social worker (Nicholas Pinnock) telling him “You’re not a kid anymore.” It’s obvious. Growing up without parents has left him broken, scarred for life.
A last-chance placement with Fiona, played by veteran British Earth Mother character actress Ruth Sheen seems to be postponing the inevitable.
Then he meets the testy cashier at the arcade. Makayla (Fola Evans-Akingbola) isn’t buying what White Boy’s selling.
“Baby-sittin’ you stoners itn’t paht of the JOB description, izzit?”
But that’s catnip to a lad like him. He talks her into taking on a task — securing him some weed — and she talks him into showing up for the flash mob rap battles she co-hosts. “Project Battle” is all the viral rage...on Southend, at least.
The social worker’s edict, “No more fighting,” has an implicit “Use your WORDS” to it. Without even planning it, Adam lets Makayla talk him into a new outlet.
“Metaphors, punch-lines, multi-syllabic rhymes, young kids expressing themselves without the use of violence?” It’s all good, she insists.
And when he’s drawn in, she takes it on herself to teach him the art form.
Director Ed Lilly and co-writer Daniel Hayes then have Makayla do something no rap battle feature film has done, and I can’t recall a documentary on the subject covering the ground either. We see her teach Adam the basics — “content and delivery” — the importance of aggression, enduring someone “getting up in your face. Can you keep your composure?”
This is no academic breakdown of styles, tropes and crutches of the genre, it’s a “How do you get up there and try this without getting ‘Slaughtered’ (the King of local rappers)?” primer.
The tentative, miss and hit nature of Adam’s learning curve is cute, as they stop to consult a dictionary, tap out ideas and full couplets on his phone, “livin’ large, spittin’ bars.”
And even though he’s rougher than 120 grit sandpaper when he takes his first shot — forgetting his rhymes, stumbling and hesitating — he finds his groove, as is the way of such movies.
It’s a little tiresome, the way these pictures emphasize sportsmanship, supporting one another “like a proper family,” Contestants of Color always propping up the white boy just starting out in “their” art form, getting good, getting confident — “E’s awright, innit?” “Awright awright, Cassius. I get it!”
But there’s a rawness to this world, and the rapping always crosses into the personal, as “Adversary” (Adam’s MC name) catches it for being “an Emo kid who got changed into Posh Spice.”
When they reach for “Mum jokes,” though, it’s on. Adam’s Mum gave him up and he’s lived his life on edge about that.
The most tense and touching moment in “VS.” is Adam showing up, unknown and unannounced, getting a buzzcut from a hairdresser (Emily Taaffe) who doesn’t realize she’s his birth mother, but he does.
The formula may be worn from a dozen or more Hollywood pictures covering the same ground. But the novelty of the setting and the working class characters and accents — “D’y-knowhutImean?” — are fresh.
And the charismatic young leads — Swindells, Evans-Akingbola, Jovian Wade and as the bullying kingpin Slaughter, Shotty Horroh — give “VS.” enough of a lift to make it worth your while.
MPAA Rating: TV-18, violence, sex, profanity aplenty
Cast:nFola Evans-Akingbola, Connor Swindells, Joivan Wade
Credits: Directed by Ed Lilly, script by Daniel Hayes and Ed Lilly. A BBC Films/Altitude release.
Running time: 1:39