The duality of the location of Southend in Ed Lilly’s debut feature VS. — as the hot bed of a battle rap scene where a misunderstood 17 year old takes out his frustration, and the place where his birth mother, who gave him up for adoption as a child, lives — never properly gels, resulting in a film that, like its lead character, has plenty of anger but always misplaces it. The common thread between these two stories in VS. is supposed to be reconciliation: Adam (Connor Swindells) understanding what his mother did, and using battle rap as a means of therapy to express these feelings. The two elements are struggle to weave together well. If we consider Creed, Adonis Johnson’s quest as a boxer is inextricable from his issues of identity with his father, to the point where his journey to become champion merges with his destiny. In VS., we are subject to disconnected narrative beats, jolting us from Adam’s rap battle career in one moment to his abandonment issues in another, lacking a sense of integration.
To humanise Adam, we see his burgeoning relationship with Makayla (Fola Evans-Akingbola), an idealistic and sensitive woman. Adam seems to think he is entitled to her as the female assistance in his narrative, but for some reason she doesn’t seem interested. Newcomer Connor Swindells makes a fair go of this central part. Firstly, misjudged melodramatic scenes such as when he reveals his identity to his estranged hairdresser Mother by getting her to shave his head down to a scar, require him to give his all in service of little. Secondly, VS. clearly takes for granted Swindells’ ability to rap. The arrogance of this assumption is not just disrespectful to hip hop but also incredibly naive. In one particular battle, where Adam raps on beat against Miss Quotes (Paigey Cakey), the difference in skill level is so alarmingly clear that the script’s contrivance to make Adam the winner is unforgivable.
That battle, where Adam outs not only Miss Quotes as a lesbian, but also Makayla as her girlfriend, is unpleasant to say the least. It is like the wigga nerd’s answer to revenge porn — stumbling through awkward multisyllabic rhymes to justify Makayla’s rejection of him whilst condemning her sexuality to her friends and the internet. What’s truly noxious though is how the filmmaker follows this scene with Adam getting beaten up outside the venue for something unrelated — to elicit our sympathy for him when it’s surely at an all-time low. The protagonist being a homophobic figure is left for the audience to take, but using such a vulgar manipulation tactic to soften him is tactless. So for the rest of the film, we’re left with this scarred hero, the marks on his face and neck symbolising the suffering he’s undergone to reach his point of reckoning: both the final battle against rival (Shotty Horroh) and his reconciliation with his Mother. Although, the real cost is not the beating he took but the pain he has inflicted by publicly shaming his friend for being gay. As he walks away from the rap battle to approach his mother on Southend Pier and forgive her, we’re left with the same decision to make about him.
— Theo Macdonald