Review: Patti Cake$

It could be said (it has been said, I’m sure) that Sundance Film Festival likes to play favorites. It’s a bit of a clique, and you’re not in until you’re in. Like the cool kids’ table at lunch or the VIP section at the club, you gotta know someone or be in the right place at the right time.

But I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Especially not while Sundance continues to identify and champion emerging talent like Geremy Jasper and his wonderful feature narrative debut, Patti Cake$. A project developed with the help of Sundance’s Screenwriting and Directing Labs, it premiered earlier this year at the 2017 film festival to generally positive reviews and was snapped up by Fox Searchlight for a cool $10.5 million.

Patricia Dombrowski is living paycheck-to-paycheck with her mother and grandmother in suburban New Jersey; the Manhattan skyline is just visible in the distance, but a world away. She dreams up raps between serving boozy regulars at the dive bar where she works, scraping together enough to pay her ailing Nana’s medical bills and cover some time at a recording studio with her best friend and rapping partner, Jheri. She’s got big dreams and talent to back them up, if only she could get a break.

After checking out an open mic night, Patti and Jheri are convinced they can do better. Patti tracks down one of the acts they saw and, since her Nana (a smart ass with heart in Cathy Moriarty) is with her, the older woman gets looped into Patti’s new band. Soon there’s a demo album from this unlikely quartet and Patti’s not shy about dropping it off with everyone and anyone who might be able to help, including her hip-hop hero. There’s a mother-daughter storyline in there, too; she (the immensely talented Bridget Everett) had her shot at ’80s pop stardom and lost it, so now she spends her nights belting out karaoke at the dive bar and is convinced Patti will never make it either.

Good movies are hard enough to make. Good movies that prominently feature music as a plot device? Those are a special kind of difficult. Not only does the plot have to work and the characters have to work, but the music – the melodies and the lyrics – have to work, or you’re instantly taken out of the whole thing. Original songs, or in the case of Patti Cake$, original raps, have to land at every beat.

Thankfully, they do. Patti, from her first street battle to her big moment of glory, delivers; Danielle Macdonald arrives like a force, an Australian actress who hasn’t been in much to date and who studied with Jersey rappers to learn to do what Patti does.

Since the music is decent enough to keep us tuned in (I’m nowhere near versed enough in hip hop to know if it’s good), the film can focus on a story that, if predictable, is nevertheless triumphant. It’s an unabashed celebration of The Other, a story for the misfit and the unlikely and the hopeless case. No one in the film is a movie star, or even looks like one. No one here is supposed to succeed, at least as far as society would have you believe. The odd couple somehow works; the hot mess redeems herself.

It’s not a spoiler to say there’s no big win in Patti Cake$; she doesn’t make it to the big time, she doesn’t catapult to stardom. It’s not about that, after all. It’s about the baby steps we take every day, just trying to scrape by, trying to make things just a little bit better for ourselves and our families. Trying to make our dreams come true.

PATTI CAKE$ – dir Geremy Jasper. Written by Geremy Jasper. Starring Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett,SiddharthDhananjay, Cathy Moriarty. Opens August 18. Official Site

Passes the Bechdel Test: Yes
Passes the DuVernay Test: Yes