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MOVIES: Bodied - Review [Fantasia 2018]

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After debuting at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, Joseph Kahn's profane and hilarious hip-hop comedy Bodied has continued to enjoy a stellar run on the festival circuit, with screenings at Fantastic Fest, AFI Fest and even a surprise appearance during Sundance. Its latest stop, at the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival, is another feather in the cap for Kahn and another impressive addition to the film's resume as it heads toward a theatrical release this fall.

Produced by Eminem, the film immediately thrusts us into the world of battle rap as graduate student Adam Merkin (American Vandal's Callum Worthy) provides a running commentary to his woke-as-fuck girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold), watching from the sidelines as Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) easily dispatches a challenger. Post-match, Adam lands an interview with Grymm for his thesis paper about the many uses of the "n-word" in battle rap, and while Grymm initially sizes him up as an ignorant white kid just looking for an excuse to sling the word around, he's impressed when Adam destroys an arrogant loudmouth during an impromptu battle in the parking lot.

Soon, Adam's fascination with battle rap culture lands him on the front lines of the competitive circuit, where he quickly learns that his ultra-PC attitude has no place in the ring. In danger of losing his first big match, against a Korean rapper named Prospek (real-life battler Jonathan "Dumbfoundead" Park), Adam trades his polite verbal jabs for scorching insults derived from offensive Asian stereotypes, accusing his opponent of eating dogs and possessing smaller-than-average genitals. The act goes over huge with the crowd, and even Prospek himself is impressed with Adam's skills, complementing him on the intelligence lurking beneath the surface of the racist attack.

But while Adam is over the moon after his first real battle rap experience, Maya is anything but, and it's here where Bodied begins to peel back the layers and force viewers to examine the current state of our culture, where everything is offensive, regardless of context. Furthermore, the film isn't shy about pointing out the absurdity of Maya and her privileged Berkeley friends sipping red wine and being outraged on behalf of minority groups who use battle rap as a form of expression. That's not to say that Adam's willingness to embrace racial epithets to achieve victory isn't rightly called into question - this decision, along with many choices Adam makes in the ring, will ultimately have grave consequences - but Kahn recognizes that the real world is often a lot more complex than we're willing to accept.

Bodied has plenty to say about millennials, faux outrage, cultural appropriation, systemic racism, misogyny and a host of other topics, but presents its message in a brilliantly satirical package that offers a mind-boggling number of laughs during its somewhat unwieldy two-hour runtime. Supporting characters like Devine (Shoniqua Shandai), the only successful female battler on the circuit, or the film's closest thing to a villain, the gun-toting, rage-fueled Megaton (Dizaster, another decorated real-world competitor) are every bit as engaging as our pasty red-haired protagonist, and the obscenity-laden barbs that opponents trade in the ring are often so offensive that you might feel guilty for laughing - and even more guilty if you don't. Bodied is a fearless firecracker of a film, dishing out a steady stream of laugh-out-loud sequences and "did they really just go there?" moments while challenging perceptions every step of the way. This one is not to be missed.

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