Even if you don’t go to the movies very often, writer-director Geremy Jasper’s Sundance sensation Patti Cake$ will feel incredibly familiar. It’s festooned with so many triumph-of-the-underdog clichés (including a climax you can see driving down the Garden State Parkway from a mile away), it’s like déja-vu with a breakbeat. The most remarkable thing about the film is how little you’ll actually mind by the end.
Essentially a hybrid of every movie about a written-off loser grasping for greatness, Patti Cake$ stars Danielle Macdonald as Patricia Dombrowski — an overweight, 23-year-old white girl from the armpit of New Jersey who dreams of becoming a rap star. It isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. Because when Patti (a.k.a. Killa P) opens her mouth and starts spitting out lyrics, she doesn’t just believe she’s a star, she becomes one. She glows.
Her best friend (Siddharth Dhananjay as a rapping pharmacist) sees this, and her chain-smoking, wheelchair-bound grandmother (Cathy Moriarty, barely recognizable even after a double take) sees it, too. But her mother, a hard-luck barfly with her own closetful of dashed karaoke dreams, does everything she can to douse her daughter’s aspirations. “Why don’t you act your age,” Patti says to her floozy mom, who shoots back: “Why don’t you act your race?” Bridget Everett does a lot with a little in this underwritten role.
Once you get over the initial shock of seeing such unlikely rhymes coming from such an unlikely source, the first hour of the film feels a bit like a rote checklist of older, better underdog movies: Patti’s hip-hop hero cuts her down to size, leading her to rip down her bedroom posters (Breaking Away); she chokes during her first big shot in the studio (8 Mile); her biggest booster winds up in a coma giving her the emotional push she needs to succeed (Rocky). The list goes on…
Fortunately, Patti Cake$ has Macdonald as its secret weapon. This relatively unknown Australian actress may not be the most nuanced and polished performer, but she pulls off something far more challenging — her raw charisma makes you root for her without feeling sorry for her. By the end of this derivative but big-hearted crowd-pleaser, resistance is futile. B