The Toronto International Film Festival kicked off on Thursday, and with it, so did my favorite section — Midnight Madness. New programming chief Peter Kuplowsky made a bold choice in choosing Joseph Kahn’s battle rap movie BODIED to kick off the lineup this year, as the film features no major stars and very little blood. That said, I have no doubt it’ll go down as one of the pleasant surprises of this year’s festival, as it absolutely slayed the merciless Midnight Madness crowd, which typically has high standards, especially when it comes to Opening Night.
Kahn has directed music videos for some of the biggest names in the biz, but his feature career (Torque, Detention) hasn’t exactly shown the same promise — until now, that is. Kahn has delivered the best movie of his career with Bodied, which stars Calum Worthy as Adam, a grad student whose thesis examines the use of the n-word in battle rap. His research brings him into contact with Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), a local legend who sees something in Adam and takes him under his wing, becoming a mentor of sorts to this white boy with raw skills.
At first, Adam’s raps are pretty tame, and it’s not until he decides to go for the jugular and give voice to all his private racist punchlines that he actually starts to succeed in this no-holds-barred competition. The character’s refusal to be politically correct is refreshing — much like Kahn’s presence on Twitter.
As such, we follow Adam as he battles his way through an entire league full of rappers, leading up to a climactic showdown against a thug named Megaton, played by real battle rapper Dizaster. Adam’s rise is juxtaposed against the demise of his relationship with his on-again/off-again girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold), who basically acts as a huge downer. The romantic subplot goes on for too long, and is the one element of the film that I didn’t really care for… kind of like Patti Cake$.
If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’ve been beating the drum for Patti Cake$ the last few months, calling it 8 Mile meets Rocky — but that description may be more appropriate for Bodied, especially since “Adam” is clearly modeled after Eminem, who produced the gritty indie movie under his Shady Films banner along with Paul Rosenberg and Adi Shankar.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Bodied writer Alex Larsen is a longtime battle rapper himself, as the rhymes are just too good to have been written by someone outside the real game. While there’s certainly some of Larsen’s Kid Twist in Adam, it’s clear that Eminem is also a major inspiration, and the last line of the film practically announces the character as the “real” Slim Shady. Visually, Kahn throws a bunch of styles at the wall to see what sticks, though it’s the words that have the real weigh here, not the images.
Speaking of which, Kahn obviously sees these battle rappers as modern day poets, and he’s an equal opportunity offender, as no one escapes this battle intact. In fact, in a refreshing twist, Kahn has his Korean rapper Prospek (Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park) turn the tables and basically make fun of Asian stereotypes himself, stealing the air from his opponent, the film’s lone female rapper Divine Write (Shoniqua Shandai). Like Mayweather and McGregor, these two hug it out afterwards, because even though these people are tearing each other to shreds, there’s love and respect behind the insults.
I had never seen or heard of Calum Worthy before, and I doubt I’m alone. After all, he’s an afterthought on his own film’s IMDb Pro page, where he’s the second-to-last name on the cast list, sandwiched between “Actress” and “Asian Protester.” And while that placement is certainly unintentional, it kind of telling, because Worthy’s performance is the kind you never see coming. Watching Adam fumble his way through the first 10 minutes of this film, you have no idea there’s a transformation coming, but it’s surprising how well the actor is able to hold his own against the real deal. Worthy was apparently a Disney Channel star, but trust me, he’s all grown up now, and while the A-listers may run off with the headlines at this festival, this is a star-making role, and he’s the first true discovery of Toronto, if we’re crediting Cannes with The Florida Project and its young star Brooklynn Prince.
By now, it’s clear that Joseph Kahn’s films aren’t for everyone. While his last movie, the nearly unwatchable Detention, has earned a cult following, it’s Bodied that actually deserves one, and depending on who buys it, I think it’ll find one too. One of my Twitter followers said that Bodied is screaming to be sold to a bold distributor like Neon, and I’m inclined to agree, even though that company has seen success with more star-driven titles like Colossal and Ingrid Goes West. I think Bodied is a real crowdpleaser that deserves the widest audience possible, and for a film like this, that might mean a sale to Netflix. I’m just not sure there are many indie distributors who would know what to do with a film like this, especially given the conversation it has inspired about free speech and the consequences of language.
Bodied is the rare satire that works, and in today’s hyper-sensitive, overly-PC culture, it may be exactly what we need right now. Madness, indeed…
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief