Fantastic Fest Review: BODIED Will Wake You The F*ck Up

Joseph Kahn's blistering battle rap opus is also the best social satire in years.

Bodied is a masterwork – a blistering, rap battle satire that wants to rip your face off and then tell your skinless corpse how fucking stupid you look. Joseph Kahn has delivered the anti-musical anti-Rocky, where winning can easily cost you your friends, your family, and your respectability. But all that matters is how hard you spit, and how viciously you tear your opponent to spiritual pieces. At the same time, it’s a movie that’s staunchly anti-PC, while simultaneously acknowledging that those types of regulations on human interaction are also necessary, lest the champion devolve into a total scumbag, who doesn’t deserve the belt, but only a bench at the nearest park. Because in Kahn’s world, you can still smoke everyone and end up a hobo.

This attitude is exactly what we’d expect from the music video lifer, who’s made a living on flashy hip hop and Taylor Swift clips, before blowing it all on 2011’s Detention – the brilliant ADD-addled genre examination of how Millennials process today’s information onslaught while doubling as the most visually irreverent comedy of the last decade. With Bodied, Kahn has created the perfect middle finger companion piece – a blistering critique of our current #StayWoke culture that has the balls to be both a criticism and champion of the heightened way we currently intellectualize cultural divides in pop culture. All the while, he employs legendary masters of the battle rap form to rip each other to pieces, while his camera whips and spins around them, creating this awe-inspiring dance of fluidity, where the performers set the pace completely, and will elevate to “kill mode” without notice. It’s a goddamn miracle to behold.

Bodied begins as an experiment, as grad student Adam (Calum Worthy) and his hyper-Woke™ girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) are watching a rap battle in a dingy warehouse, totally enthralled while Adam Mansplains the rules (and Maya rolls her eyes at said lessons). Adam’s main subject is Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) – the reigning champ in this ‘hood, who is utterly bemused by this white boy trying to figure out the proper way to say “nigga” without coming off like a massive racist. Afterward, Adam’s challenged in the parking lot by a fronting Caucasian, bringing the fury out of this sheltered college kid, who smokes him into oblivion. This ultimately endears Adam to an entire community of rhymers (not to mention, awakens their big bad local bully, Megaton [Dizaster]), but also puts him at odds with his classmates, who hold dinners ostensibly trying to one-up each other in debates about “cultural appropriation”. These are exaggerated caricatures of the faux literati who populate lecture halls, clog Twitter feeds with relentless “threads”, and comments sections with their own TL; DR diatribes.

Kahn’s indulging a certain thread of subversive humor in Bodied that’s fascinating – skewering these studious cartoons while simultaneously sending our “hero” on a path that makes him embrace his brain’s boiling pot of vitriol and dump it all over his opponents. If he’s up against an Asian opponent (Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park), you best believe he’s making fun of him for scarfing dog and using dental floss as a blindfold. His Latino rival (Walter Perez) takes a ton of heat for supposedly living in one room with twelve members of his extended family. A big black girl with bars for days (Shoniqua Shandai) is attacked for her figure. But through an onslaught of insults, this motley crew becomes an unlikely family, and the stereotypes are (in many cases) proven to be totally false, especially in Behn Grymm’s case – a video game designer, with a sick daughter and a whip smart wife who eats Adam alive whenever he tries to pry into their cultural background. Kahn (along with co-writer Alex Larsen) lets Adam reject all his book-bred beliefs and just live out this strange alternate life he never thought was possible, concurrently feeling burdened by manufactured white guilt about using all sorts of words he shouldn’t.

There’s also an element of Bodied that feels like something of a dare – a brazen tossing of taboo in the audience’s face that makes you laugh, but then question your own sense of humor and righteousness. Is it OK if I find some of these insults funny, despite knowing they’re obviously the worst things one person could say to another? Furthermore, if I’m laughing at all, what does that say about me? Kahn’s supremely polished delivery keeps the movie feeling borderline flippant, even when it's striving to make greater points – an emotional bomb, gift wrapped to make you think it’s a brand new stereo. Cinematographer Matt Wise slides right into Kahn’s glossy, digital chic with ease (sidebar: Kahn’s movies are beautiful to look at), while Detention editor Chancler Haynes continues to chop these wonderful images into another rapid fire assault of swings, zooms, close ups, title cards and elaborate choreography, the camera discovering idiosyncratic dance moves as battle rappers get up in each other’s faces, ferociously barking disses. Compared to Kahn’s last Adderall snorting feature, it’s certainly restrained, while still being completely aggressive and out of its goddamn mind.

Beyond all else, there’s a message about “showing up” that permeates Kahn’s picture – the notion that you can talk about being “progressive” and judge any art form or community from afar, but until you’re actually down in it, throwing and taking punches with the crowd living this weird dream, you should shut your fucking mouth. Bodied is a movie about faux outrage and real assholes; Adam’s journey leading him to be ostracized by his highbrow community because he got caught on YouTube saying some naughty words, while his actual friends get hurt when he starts getting too personal with these rhymes. It illustrates the difference between performative teeth gnashing, and actual psychic injury, and how the noblest of intentions can get twisted, tattered and perverted. Some will watch Bodied and see a bunch of folks writing funny poetry just to bring each other down, while others will dig deeper and discover one of the best social satires this generation has delivered.