Vs. is the film for anyone who thought rap battle movies are too America-focused, and you can’t get much more British than sunny Southend-on-Sea, Essex.
Adam (Connor Swindells) is a troubled young man growing up in foster care, who finds himself in Southend for his final stop before turning 18. The twist – his birth mother (Emily Taaffe) lives nearby, and this may be the perfect opportunity to get answers. Hanging around the local arcade Adam soon befriends Makayla (Fola Evans-Akingbola), who then introduces him to the creative world of rap battling.
Adam, who we first meet during an angry outburst in his previous foster home, finds the outlet helpful and takes to it like a duck to water. Things aren’t that simple, of course, and the brutal truths delivered by friends and enemies alike start to get under Adam’s skin as he considers reconnecting with his family.
The setting, like many seaside towns, looks perfect on camera – sunny and idyllic while also reeking of poverty and youthful boredom. That juxtaposition is key to making the film work.
Vs. takes the structural format of the dance movie and adapts it to something significantly less ‘razzle dazzle’. It will inevitably be compared to films like 8 Mile, but I’d argue that it has more in common with something like Step Up or it’s superior British counterpart Streetdance. Adam isn’t an outsider, as such, but he does overstep his bounds regularly when dealing with a group who clearly have a long and deep history.
Fola Evans-Akingbola as Makayla is the film’s most striking performance, as well as its most refreshing character. From the jump she gets the role of educator that would ordinarily be reserved for the male character, and a later twist adds depth to what otherwise may have been a stock character.
The culture of rap music and rap battling specifically is portrayed as something beautiful in the lives of these young people, keeping them from violence and crime they may fall into otherwise. The film also focuses on its use of language (when practicing for his first battle, Adam and Makayla a seen sifting through a dictionary) and musical gymnastics, which is often overlooked or brushed aside.
Vs. is a rather slight film which relies far too much on the conventions of its genre, but there are key moments and character beats that lift it above its counterparts and make it a recommendation for those who may want to see something slightly different.