“Probably assume everything is a gun metaphor.” The opener to the Midnight Madness program at this year’s TIFF, Joseph Kahn’s Bodied (Grade: B) is loosely a battle-rap All About Eve, but it’s so thickly packed with technical and verbal dazzle that whatever biting point it might have had to make ends up completely lost. The Anne Baxter character here is Adam (Calum Worthy), a white rap nerd who’s working on a master’s thesis on what he wincingly refers to as “the n-word”; his Bette Davis is Behn Grym (Jackie Long), a thoughtful Bay Area master of rhymed insults who only raps about gruesomely killing his opponents because he considers personal cracks too low. In an ambitiously smart-assed twist that Kahn lays out like a fucked-up superhero origin story, the untapped talent of the progressive, socially conscious, Bernie-Sanders-loving Adam turns out to be a vivid imagination for hyper-specific racist and sexist insults, which propels him to underground stardom while predictably threatening his relationship with his archetypal disapproving vegan girlfriend (Rory Uphold) and his academic life at Berkeley.
One idea drives Alex “Kid Twist” Larsen’s funny, knowing, overstuffed script: Words change with the speaker, but they don’t lose their meaning. Who knows whether Adam’s failure to recognize this notion (it’s the subject of his thesis) is a dark irony or just inconsistent characterization; Bodied’s bottomless appetite for potshots, wisecracks, and yowls of self-awareness comes at the expense of the narrative line.
A ruthless showboater, Kahn (Detention) directs the movie as a hyperactive, indulgent series of grandiose wide-angle master shots, razor-thin-focus close-ups, whip pans, title cards, gag cuts, and super-fast racks, visually ridiculing his characters at every opportunity. In one of several sequences that liken Adam to a kind of fucked-up Peter Parker discovering his powers (the Marvel references are too numerous to count here), he sips wine with his fellow grad students while insults draft themselves uncontrollably in his head. But the movie is just as quick to lampoon Adam’s internalized racism—say, in a single-take sequence in which one black man after another springs into the frame like a slasher-movie jump scare while trying to talk to him outside of a club. This aesthetic of flash and disparagement perfectly fits the milieu, but it doesn’t encourage viewer sympathy for anyone except for Grym, who never fails to command the respect of Kahn’s camera. As a result, the third act’s ostensible shift in sympathies just feels superficial.