Film Review: Patti Cake$

8 Mile Goes To Jersey In Beat-Dropping Indie Drama

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
Patti Cake$
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There is an interesting, button-pushing movie to be made about the intersection of urban black culture and suburban white culture. It started as far back as the Jazz Age and continues into today’s rap-dominant music world, with kids of all races absorbing and subsuming African-American innovations in style and genre. Someone, surely, is primed to make some pointed, eye-opening observations about today’s black-and-white world of hip-hop and the deeply ingrained idea of cultural appropriation. But Patti Cake$ is not that movie.

On the surface, it could have been. The film takes us to semi-urban nowhere New Jersey where broke young people stare longingly across the river to the lights and sights of Manhattan. Our focus here is 23-year-old white girl Patti Dombrowski (Australian actress Danielle Macdonald). Patti lives with her alcoholic mother (Bridget Everett) and her ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty playing waaay against type). Patti works part time at a neighborhood bar and endures the taunts of former classmates for her plus-sized frame. But Patti’s got a dream. She wants, more than anything, to become a rap star like her gold grill-sporting idol O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah). Christening herself Killa P, Patti Cake$ and any other monicker that strikes her fancy, Patti spits freestyle rhymes into her bedroom mirror and fills notebooks with poignant rap lyrics. If only she had the confidence to live out her dream.

Unfortunately, Patti’s mom once entertained glitter-and-Spandex dreams of being the lead singer in a hair metal band before pregnancy, divorce and $2 well drink night brought her low. Mom’s sad stabs at faded glory—singing drunken karaoke in the local tavern—are enough to put Patti off the idea of musical fame and fortune. But as Patti goes about her life of New Jersey toil and NYC dreams, she repeatedly bumps into an oddball black kid named Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie). Decked out in facial piercings, short dreadlocks and a single white contact lens, Basterd has a taste for abrasive industrial music. But Patti senses a kinship in the lonely outcast. So, naturally, she forms an all-star rap group with the Goth punk weirdo, her best friend (an East Indian rap lover who works in a pharmacy) and her wheelchair-bound nana. (No, really.) It’s all pretty far-fetched, but
Patti Cake$ gets surprisingly far on gumption and an infectiously good-natured attitude.

First-time writer-director Geremy Jasper, who also molded the film’s omnipresent music and lyrics, is the man behind this faintly autobiographical tale of youthful enthusiasm. Authentic as the setting looks and energetic as the message feels, very little of it would have worked without a strong, central presence. Macdonald, making her loud-and-proud stateside debut, grounds it all with empathy and gravity. The chemistry between Patti and her friends is strong, and her talents on the mic are credible enough to feel worthy.

Unfortunately, the many impediments to Patti’s success are entirely predictable: bullying rivals, naysaying parents, crushing economic conditions and a climactic stage contest filled with more-polished talent. This story of working-class kids dreaming of show-biz success was old-school when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were saying, “Hey, let’s put on a show!” back in 1939. It’s a trope that’s been repeated endlessly since then—from
The Commitments to Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo to Purple Rain to 8 Mile. Broken down into its constituent parts, Patti Cake$ is little more than the hardscrabble setting of some plucky British-coal-miners/factory-workers-done-good saga (Billy Elliot or Kinky Boots or The Full Monty) welded onto the amateur rap battle milieu of 8 Mile.

There’s no doubt you’ve seen this sort of rags-to-riches story a thousand times before. But there’s just enough charisma and likability on display throughout
Patti Cake$ to make you wish the man behind it were as interested in originality as he was in sentimental manipulation, crowd-pleasing formulas and rhyming insults. On a Caucasian rap scale of Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme to Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP, Patti Cake$ hovers somewhere around Kid Rock’s Early Mornin’ Stoned Pimp.
Patti Cake$

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