Film Review: Patti Cake$

Australian Danielle Macdonald instantly soars to movie stardom in this gritty, rap-flavored, terrifically edited and very effective coming-of-age/family saga.
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Much more of an innovative, new-fangled musical than the overrated La La Land, writer-director Geremy Jasper’s arresting debut feature Patti Cake$ features Patti Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald), an overweight, white New Jersey girl with serious rapper aspirations for her alter ego, Killa P. She lives at home with her alcoholic, ex-singer mother (Bridget Everett), who doesn’t view rap as music, and her beloved--if crusty--wheelchair-bound grandmother, Nana (Cathy Moriarty).

Trying to be the breadwinner of the family with a crappy bartending job, Patti is always scribbling rhymes in a notebook and fantasizes about the day when her talent will be discovered by her constantly dreamt-of idol, rap kingpin O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah). To that end, she collaborates on composing raps with her only friend, East Indian Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay), who toils in a pharmacy.

It’s 2017, nobody here is a Kardashian and cash is tight for everyone, so when Patti stumbles on one very strange black kid who dresses satanically and calls himself the Anti-Christ (Mamoudou Athie) and finds that he also happens to have an entire makeshift recording studio setup in a shack in the woods, she enjoins him to throw in with her and Hareesh’s quest for stardom.

Although bent on bringing rap to the masses once and for all, it must be admitted that the screenplay, stripped of rap references and the latest urban slang, is as hoary as they come, your basic struggling mother-love tale spread out over three co-existing generations, with the obligatory big competition at the finale. Even a lot of the raps themselves at the start, although wondrously empowering for Patti (who gorgeously embraces her plus-size status, although jerks in her nabe have nicknamed her “Dumbo” from childhood), don’t seem that clever, pocked as much in this genre is by approximate—not exact—rhyming.

But the film really jolts to vivid life in the scene where Patti, Hareesh, the Antichrist and even a hesitant, hilariously croaking Nana all musically mesh in the creation of their first joint effort, as everyone in the audience—even the most uninformed and reluctant—comes to understand the importance of “beats,” the underlying rhythm track which fuels the verbiage. The Antichrist comes up with something chaotic, which canny Patti tells him to slow down; a seductively irresistible drum line emerges, and when Hareesh kicks in with some wonderfully funky, melodic vocals, the screen catches fire.

The brazenly fresh Macdonald makes Patti one of the great heroines in American film, as original and relatable-to-a-generation as Travolta was in Saturday Night Fever. She may be stuck in a loser-NJ situation where scoring a permanent gig slaving for a catering firm is as desirable and hard to get as an Oscar. But, from her opening scene waking up in her sty of a bedroom to face the twin heavy trouble represented by her mother and mother’s mother, telling herself she’s beautiful in the bathroom mirror, she displays an uncanny self-possession and sureness of her own worth, in spite of the hard facts staring into her angelic—at times quite beautiful—and marvelously expressive face. That Antichrist character may be too enigmatic and underwritten, but Athie invests him with a quiet authority and hesitant androgyny—in contrast to Patti’s incessant swagger—that subtly evokes Prince, and the unexpected chemistry he shares with Macdonald is febrile and real. Dhananjay Is likeably antic and vocally gifted (Boy, does the film need it, to soften the anger and misanthropic obscenity!), but the other true cast standouts are Patti‘s formidable feminine forebears. Jasper has been successful in harnessing Everett’s monumental energy—she’s rather terrorized the New York City cabaret scene for years, sometimes belting while stripped down to her scanties, and she’s a big girl, too—into a performance that is both feral and touching, making use of her vocal chops to convey this wreck of a woman’s thwarted dreams of being a star herself. Moriarty, best known as the luscious Lana Turner-ish Vicky LaMotta in Raging Bull, makes a startling leap into character acting, her astonishingly prehensile mouth being her only recognizable feature as this raddled, pill-popping ancient broad in a wheelchair. The veteran actress obviously knows this kind of woman from the inside out, and the portrayal is blisteringly real, deserving of award recognition come the end of the year—as is Macdonald.

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