Being a white girl with frizzy hair and a love of hip-hop, I have to say that the trailer for Patti Cake$ grabbed me immediately. With more than a nod to 8 Mile, another ‘white guy with dreams of rapping’ narrative, the film looked like it had just the right blend of indie sensibility and genuinely enjoyable music to become an instant favourite of mine. However, there is always a risk of stories like this becoming slightly cringeworthy, so I was eager to see which side the film came out on.
Patti Cake$ tells the story of Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald), a talented white girl from New Jersey who harbours ambitions of becoming a successful rapper. Along with friends Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) and Basterd (Mamoudou Athie) and her ailing Nana (played by Cathy Moriarty), Patricia forms a rap group called PBNJ, and their refreshing take on hip-hop soon starts to get traction within the city’s music scene. The narrative is provided with a key antagonist in the form of Patricia mother Barb (Bridget Everett), a washed up, heavy drinking jealous has been who once enjoyed a brief career as a rock singer, and the two women clash on all things from lifestyle to taste in music to choice of men.
The one glaring thing that has to be said about Patti Cake$ is that it is essentially a film that displays trope after trope after trope, but the key is that the audience have so much fun along the way that the familiar set of circumstances and outcomes never feel detrimental to the overall effect of the picture. It’s the kind of story that we have all seen a hundred times before, the against all odds, struggles along the way, coming out better on the other side type of tale that if done well, can really make an audience feel great, and thankfully, it’s done really well here. In terms of originality, there is nothing about the structure of the narrative that feels new or refreshing, but it is in the execution of the tropes that Patti Cake$ excels. Each time that Patricia takes centre stage to unleash her musical talent is a highlight, with the freestyle scenes in particular possessing an exciting energy and tone. Very much a dramedy, the film is comfortable and confident in both its lighter moments and its darker moments. As I did in literally the second sentence of this review, comparisons to 8 Mile are inevitable, but it must be said that 8 Mile evokes none of the joy and warmth that Patti Cake$ does. The dry, often dark comedy works, the drama works, and the balance is such that you feel uplifted by the end of proceedings, essentially the kind of trajectory that every successful Sundance Film Festival entry hopes to achieve.
Films that have rap and hip-hop as their central focus are usually heavy, self-important and not nearly self aware enough to be light and enjoyable, and the reversal of these traits is what makes Patti Cake$ a real joy to experience. Whether you a fan of the genre or not, there is plenty to like about the film.
A considerable amount of the film’s charm comes from the array of fantastic and endearing performances. As Patricia, Danielle Macdonald is everyone’s new favourite underdog. Macdonald is instantly likeable as a New Jersey girl, stuck in her circumstances, wishing for something more, and most importantly you believe in her abilities. Not everybody can transform themselves in to a convincing rapper, but Macdonald possesses the all important flow to do so! Siddarth Dhananjay as best friend Jheri is super endearing, another misfit of sorts who does nothing but praise and encourage his talented companion. It’s really nice to see a childhood friends angle that doesn’t turn in to a romance by sheer force of plot, and the relationship that Patricia and Jheri share feels pure and special throughout. Of course, it wouldn’t be a film packed with tropes without an unlikely romance, and this role is filled by Mamoudou Athie as the mysterious metal head and self proclaimed antichrist Basterd. Athie is a sure fire silent scene stealer, using his physicality and sheer presence to pull focus in a really interesting way. Yet another outcast, the chemistry he and Patricia share is wonderful to witness, and their unconventional partnership is one of the only true breaths of fresh air in the narrative.
Cathy Moriarty as Nana gives one of the more caricatured performances of the film, but her hard talking, change smoking, low voiced take on Patricia’s grandmother is endlessly fun to watch, and the more tender, vulnerable moments they share help to provide some depth to the picture. As mother Barb, New York legend Bridget Everett turns it all the way up to eleven to great effect. One minute you love Barb, one minute you hate her, and if that isn’t proof that she excels in the role of a problematic mother, then I don’t know what is!
Overall, Patti Cake$ may well prove to be one of the best hidden gems of the year. Don’t be fooled in to thinking that this is only a film for lovers of hip-hop, because the layered family and social drama that accompanies the fun, fresh rap focused narrative really does have something to offer everybody. Like I said, the film indulges heavily in lots of the tropes that film goers will find familiar, perhaps even overly familiar, but at the end of the day, if a movie can delight me in the way that Patti Cake$ has, I can forgive lack of innovation in favour of a straight up good time.