Southend-born director Ed Lilly returns to his home town with a hip hop drama that’s full of conviction, if underpowered at key moments. It follows a troubled teen, foster kid Adam (Connor Swindells), as he discovers his voice in the hostile world of rap battling and finds a way to articulate past wounds. A kind of British twist on ‘8 Mile’, it’s a sinewy trip through the scene, complete with scathing rhymes and reclaimed urban spaces – just in Essex instead of Detroit.
As with any film seeking to depict underground culture, ‘VS.’ faces challenges of realism and authenticity. Despite its credentials – real-life Mancunian rapper Shotty Horroh appears as Adam’s rival Slaughter – too many moments come off as clichéd or contrived. Swindells is at his best in seething scenes with those closest to him, as he struggles to come to terms with his life on the radar of social services.
Still, it’s exciting to see this underground scene finding an outlet on screen. As an exploration of contemporary youth culture, masculinity, identity and sexuality, as well as life at the margins, ‘VS.’ is topical and energising. Thanks to a generous pinch of self-awareness (‘It’s not exactly Papa Doc versus B-Rabbit, mate,’ Adam teases Slaughter, ‘it’s a battle on the beach. Street life? You’re at the seaside!’), it’s easy to forgive any flaws.