BodiedReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/25/18 18:20:59
SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Bodied" is a remarkably entertaining movie that is also frank as heck in its talk about race, the sort of thing that feels like it's got a 10% chance of being a breakthrough and a much larger chance of getting pilloried for moments that have been taken out of context. It isn't quite perfect, but it's funny, built to appeal to a broad audience, and may just get a thing or two to click into place for the people who watch it, and that's definitely worth a bigger-than-usual recommendation.It opens with a rap battle in an empty warehouse, and one of the most enthusiastic people in the crowd is whitebread-as-heck Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy), eagerly explaining to girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) the terminology, mechanics, and history of the medium before running after winner Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) to get some insight on how a certain ubiquitous word starting with "n" is used with different adjectives for use in his graduate thesis at Berkley. An encounter with someone looking to challenge Behn gives Adam the chance to do his own, and he's invited to compete as a result, scoring a win with some more-than-questionable lyrics. Soon he's eagerly diving deeper into that world, not quite understanding exactly how out-of-place he is despite his own enthusiasm.
The film is clearly Adam's story, but he's never truly the hero, and the filmmakers engage in a sort of internal tug of war where they're sort of coy about this right from the start, where Behn tosses off a comment about how Adam is looking for a pass to use the n-word, horrifying Adam. He probably isn't, consciously, and there's never any indication that he considers himself better than people of other ethnicities, but he's got some deep white privilege that plays out in dead-on fashion: Shock at people telling him he's out of line, feeling that he can't be that privileged because his background sometimes works against him, but, still, not really changing, and feeling like he can go to the racist or personal material because he doesn't really grasp consequences. Director Joseph Kahn and actor Calum Worthy attacks this material in impressive fashion, always keeping the wide-eyed, enthusiastic young man up front so the jokes work, but also having a bit of hostility to pull out, so that the aggression of the competition is part of the appeal.
The film is a little clumsier in how it handles Rory Uphold as Maya, or at least it seems that way; she kind of careens from being the sharp comedic MVP in early scenes to bring treated as an offensive punchline to something else later, but that may just be a result of telling the story from Adam's point of view: That's how she seems to him at those points, but it wouldn't be hard to turn the movie inside out and show her as the one trying to face up to her own failings and hypocrisy while still maintaining some level of self-respect, and it's impressive to watch her emphasize those different things without radically transforming Maya from scene to scene, at least not to the point of being unrecognizable.
Jackie Long does something similarly impressive as Behn, in that there's an alternate movie the about him confronting and his two personae. His early scenes, mainly built around his performance, are electrifying, but hint at a more contemplative core, and he manages to alternate between them without suggesting that one is not him being true to himself. At least, that is, until the finale, when his recognition that there's some conflict makes his story the most satisfying part.
Kahn and screenwriter Alex "DJ Twist" Larsen pull much of the film from Larsen's own life, Smith they spread it out enough between the characters that it never feels too specific or suffused with too much pride. It does still feel a bit exaggerated at times, and the decision to make it mainly Adam's story rather than spread it out a bit more between the ensemble sometimes threatens to give his position a little too much credence, especially a sequence where his racist lyrics getting in front of an unintended audience plays as over-the-top persecution.
It's arguably deliberate exaggeration, although it's the only time Kahn goes that far with it. He's got a great touch for most of the film, though, letting the music drive the film as much as possible but finding ways to heighten it throughout. He lets the jokes come at a good clip but gives the story time to breathe. It's a dense movie, but doesn't feel that way.That's an impressive set of accomplishments for a movie that could have easily seemed either trivial or over-ambitious. It still overreaches at times, and folks who see the rap battle scenes on their own will get the adding idea of what the movie's about, but in full, it's good enough to be pushed on people who wouldn't usually be interested in the subject.
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