'Patti Cake$': Film Review | Sundance 2017

A rapper is born.

Films about music scenes are often an iffy proposition commercially, but this New Jersey story about an aspiring female rap star could gain traction thanks to the strong performances and gritty soundtrack.

Patti Cake$ cooks. A homegrown New Jersey story about a working class girl’s longshot struggle to make a mark in the rap music scene, Geremy Jasper’s dynamic debut crackles with energy and grassroots authenticity. But it wouldn’t have worked at all without the right leading lady, which it found in Danielle Macdonald, whose rapping seems convincingly born of her character’s rough life experience. Although music-scene films are often an iffy proposition commercially, this one could gain traction thanks to the strong performances and gritty soundtrack.

Set so near and yet so far away from New York City (the characters can gaze upon the skyline from a distance as if it were Oz), Jasper’s original story is rooted in a virtual no-hope zone of low-rent stores and dead-end jobs. It’s a melting pot of meager achievement and failed dreams, with the evidence of multi-generational failure littered everywhere.

Exhibit A is Barb (Bridget Everett), a seriously plus-sized middle-age woman who sits in her lounge chair throne surrounded by squalor all day long, smoking and watching TV and providing a constant reminder to her twentysomething and equally overweight daughter Patricia Dombrowski (Macdonald) of what life has in store for her unless she can find an escape hatch.

Ma once had dreams of musical success, but that all went south long ago. Making scratch in an attempt to keep up with Barb’s accumulating medical bills by tending bar at an old neighborhood joint, Patricia sometimes gets together with an enthusiastic buddy Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay) to let loose with raw, corrosive and dirty raps.

Shooting in a vibrant, loose style that gives full expression to the pent-up energy of the characters, first-time director Jasper reveals the full musical talents of Patricia, a.k.a. “Killa P,” a.k.a. “Patti Cake$," in a sizzling outdoor rap battle with a local jerk who doesn’t take kindly to losing to someone he’s denigrated as “a white Precious.” And then there’s a mysterious black dude called Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), who surfaces for brief moments, then just as quickly disappears again on his bike. But once Patti tracks him down at a remote hideaway stocked with musical recording equipment, he plays a crucial role in giving her a shot at recognition. The ultimate disposition of this character provides some surprise amusement late in the game.

But a demo CD (yes, everyone acknowledges the format’s obsolescence) at least provides tangible evidence of what Patti can do. She gets work at an upscale catering company, where she proves her worth as a crack bartender before committing a stupid transgression that lands her pouring drinks again at the forlorn neighborhood bar, dealing unpleasantly with her mother and ailing grandmother (an unrecognizable and excellent Cathy Moriarty) and so monumentally depressed over the career that ever was that she gives it all up.

But this isn’t the end of the story, and while there’s a bit of a far-fetched fairy tale aspect to it, Jasper wraps it all up with a high-octane finale that leaves you wanting to see more of Patti and, more realistically, of Macdonald, whose talent is all but staggering. When you learn that she’s not actually a Joisey girl or a rapper but is, in fact, Australian, the marvel factor is multiplied another few-fold.

Also outstanding is Everett, heretofore known as a leading New York cabaret singer. Still looking on the younger side of middle age, she’s nonetheless not afraid to come off here as gross and repellent, a frustrated woman who never had the career she wanted, has let herself go and has done nothing to prepare her daughter for a better life than she’s had. Moriarty, as her mother, comes off as simply an earlier link in the same unfortunate chain.

Jasper grew up in the area and the feel for place and attitudes rings completely true. The rawness serves as a welcome counterweight to the filmmakers’ crowd-pleasing impulses, so that, in the end, Patti Cake$ has to be included in any discussion of the better rap-related dramatic feature films.

Production company: Department of Motion Pictures
Cast: Danielle Macdonald, Siddharth Dhananjay, Bridget Everett, Mamoudou Athie, Cathy Moriarty, Sahr Ngaujah, McCaul Lombardi, Waas Stevens, MC Lyte
Director-screenwriter: Geremy Jasper
Producers: Michael Gottwald, Noah Stahl, Rodrigo Teixeira, Dan Janvey, Chris Columbus, Daniela Taplin Lundberg
Executive producers: Lourenco Sant’Anna, Sophie Mas, Eleanor Columbus, Josh Penn, Jonathan Bronfman, Lon Molnar, Fernando Fraiha, Bill Benenson
Director of photography: Federico Cesca
Production designer: Meredith Lippincott
Costume designer: Miyako Bellizzi
Editor: Brad Turner
Music: Geremy Jasper, Jason Binnick
Casting: Jessica Kelly, Rebecca Dealy
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

108 minutes