Going into , I'll admit I had some trepidation. Is now really the time for a story about a white girl who wants to become a rap star? Also, didn't 8 Mile already cover this sort of thing well enough? But it didn't take long for Patti Cake$ to quell those fears, thanks to a completely winning performance by Danielle Macdonald as Patti.
Set in an unnamed town in New Jersey, where the Manhattan skyline is a constant visible taunt to those with dreams of making it there (or anywhere), Patti Dombrowski, AKA Killa P, AKA Patti Cake$ (and AKA Dumbo, to the bullies in town) is 23 but still lives at home, working part-time jobs as a bartender and a catering waiter to help support her alcoholic and perpetually unemployed mother Barb (Bridget Everett) and ailing Nana (Cathy Moriarty). She also has notebooks full of rhymes and big dreams, both figuratively and literally (her daydreams are brought to life onscreen) of becoming a rap star, like her idol and fellow Jersey-ite O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah).
Her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) provides her backbeats and choruses, and shares in her big-league dreams, pushing her forward whenever she doubts herself or feels crushed by the Jersey boys who won't ever let her forget her plus-size, white girl status. When Patti sees an open mic performance by a weird African American goth kid (Mamoudou Athie) who calls himself Basterd the Antichrist, she recognizes the musical genius behind his oddball facade, and convinces him to join her and Jheri.
Patti Cake$ is a musical, and it adheres to many of the cliches inherent in musicals; maybe too many — underdog status; meeting your idols; a final Big Show. And like most musicals, it succeeds or fails based on the strength of its music. Luckily, the music in Patti Cake$ is surprisingly catchy, especially when the oddball trio (with the addition of Patti's Nana on a vocal) lays down their first track "PBNJ" (also the name they give their band).
Director and screenwriter Geremy Jasper, who started out as a musician, wrote all the music and rhymes in the film. The result is nice blend of hip-hop and rock, with a touch of industrial. All the main characters in the film rely on music, in some way or another, to get them through the dreariness of their New Jersey lives, and I imagine Jasper's musical background and Jersey native status played a large part in making that feel believable, with some additional heavy lifting from the talented cast.
Bridget Everett is famous for her raunchy cabaret act, and the film definitely benefits from her larger-than-life presence and excellent singing voice, as her character tries to relive the glory days of her rock star hopeful youth. And Dhananjay's Jheri is funny, charming, and the ultimate hype man, both on and off the mic.
But Patti Cake$ would not be half as enjoyable without star Danielle Macdonald. Macdonald is Australian, but she manages the Jersey accent, and more importantly, the vocal swagger needed to convincingly sell all the raps in the film. Her Patti manages to have both pride and vulnerability, and such a belief in music (when she puts headphones on, Jasper shows her literally being lifted into the air by its power) that you can't help but root for her. The story in Patti Cake$ may not be the freshest, but Macdonald's Patti most definitely is.Patti Cake$