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Patti Cake$

This unlikely hip-hop origin story will have you moving to its beat.
By Sarah Ward
September 14, 2017
By Sarah Ward
September 14, 2017

Slinging fast-paced rhymes with a feisty attitude to match, Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) isn't naively chasing fame in Patti Cake$. With "mylifesfuckinawesome" one of her spirited rap anthems penned under the stage name of Killa P, she's certain that her music dreams will come true. The fact that she's stuck in New Jersey stringing together dead-end jobs to take care of her boozing mother (Bridget Everett) and ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) might make it seem like her confidence is misplaced. But Patti's determination is as big as her smile.

As quick as you can say "gender-swapped 8 Mile", Patti Cake$ takes its eager protagonist down the expected path, with her working-class background and plus-size shape thrown in as roadblocks. She's also got the requisite support from her old pal Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), as well as a new friend and collaborator in anti-establishment punk Basterd (Mamoudou Athie). They're soon laying down tunes, fighting for attention and eventually catching a few lucky breaks. It's all a bit predictable, but what this first feature from writer-director Geremy Jasper lacks in surprises, it makes up for in detail, heart and a stellar lead performance.

With Jasper himself a Jersey native chasing dreams of his own, Patti Cake$ is filled with the kind of specificity that can only be plucked from real life. As a result, it has more than a few tricks up its sleeves. Audiences may be tempted to judge the movie prematurely due to its familiar narrative and slick-meets-gritty aesthetic. And yet, as the characters who underestimate Patti discover, there's a difference between appearances and reality. Just as there's more to Macdonald's protagonist than cruel nicknames like "Dumbo" and "white Precious", there's more to the film as well.

Lurking within this standard underdog story is a clear-eyed portrait of small-town existence — from the sense of restlessness evident at every turn, to the need to seek escape by belting out tunes or taking to the bottle, to the distinct blend of hip hop and white working-class subcultures. Whenever the formula kicks in, the sights and sounds of Patti's mundane life don't quite counteract the obviousness of the plot, but they do give the film's feel-good trajectory weight and authenticity. There's bleak truth and an almost documentary-like spirit that accompanies every convenient twist and turn. Accordingly, when the big, crowd-pleasing moments come, the emotion that swells with them feels well and truly earned.

The same can be said of Macdonald's efforts, with the Aussie actress dazzling in a way that would make her on-screen alter ego both proud and jealous. In her hands, Patti relishes the highs she has toiled for with the knowing smile of someone who has weathered the lows, and remains well aware that fantasies don't really come true overnight. It's a star-making turn in a movie that's all about chasing star-making chances, and it comes with excellent support from Everett and Moriarty. All that plus a catchy soundtrack will have your toes tapping even if Killa P's beats aren't your usual jam.

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