Courtesy / Jeong Park, Twentieth Century Fox Film
Patti Cake$  — Danielle Macdonald stars as Patti and Bridget Everett as Barb in the film Patti Cake$.
Courtesy / Jeong Park, Twentieth Century Fox Film Patti Cake$ — Danielle Macdonald stars as Patti and Bridget Everett as Barb in the film Patti Cake$.

by Khari J. Sampson
Movie Reviews
Gwinnett Daily News

What if the winning 2013 musical Pitch Perfect ditched all those chicks except Rebel Wilson, added in a pinch of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile? You’d get something like Patti Cake$, starring Danielle Macdonald, another plus-sized Australian blonde.

But it wouldn’t be as good as this film, especially if you’re a fan of hip-hop music (like me).

Danielle Macdonald is Patti “Dumbo” Dombrowski, a 23-year-old New Jerseyite caught between a dead-end job as a bartender and acting as caretaker for both her grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) and her alcoholic mother, Barb (a hilarious Bridget Everett) when all she really wants to do is spit some bars over some fire tracks.

That’s hip-hop slang for “she wants to be a rapper” like her idol, the wildly successful O.Z. (Sahr Ngaujah, looking like a doppelgänger of Samuel L. Jackson).

“Killer P” has a partner in crime in best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) but can’t get anyone else to believe in her — not her mom (herself something of a failed musician), not the other wannabe white rappers, no one. It doesn’t help that she has a penchant for daydreaming she’s entering O.Z.’s inner circle and having to endure constant micro aggressions over her size. (Exhibit A: her demeaning nickname.)

In a career-making turn, Macdonald is superb in the lead. She manages comedy and pathos from the smart script time and time again. She’s well complemented by the supporting cast, especially Moriarty (who steals entire scenes with single lines) and Everett who comes off as a cartoon at first but accounts for the film’s emotional arc. Dhananjay is fun as Patti’s best friend. Though his soft-spoken character is sometimes hard to parse, Mamoudou Athie is a revelation as well.

Speaking of revelations, it’s hard to believe this is director Geremy Jasper’s first feature film. Also the film’s writer (including all its inventive rap lyrics), Jasper has crafted that rare comic drama that manages to be very funny without being a string of SNL sketches stretched into R-rated territory — and then too long into unfunniness. The editing is sharp like a hip hop rhyme scheme, accounting for much of the film’s humor.

Many times the film seems headed straight for the cliche of these sorts of movies: “If only the heroine can get her shot, she’ll blow them all away. If only these jerks didn’t keep getting in her way!” Well, Patti Cake$ takes it there, then takes a hard left turn almost every time. It’s both refreshing and jarring: the former because it’s not the same old thing, the latter because you really want Patti to get a solid “W,” and the movie keeps ruining it for her.

The film also has lots of social commentary for the attentive, conscious viewer, but it never belabors any of its points. For instance, there’s a scene where a New Jersey police officer comes to the scene of a rap battle and makes some potentially racist assumptions. And then the movie moves on without speechifying or anything. There’s a place and film for such messaging, but Patti Cake$ wisely knows it’s neither.

Patti Cake$ is a bit troubling in that, while it’s a very diversely cast film, it still centers on a white woman appropriating black culture, something that grows a bit tiresome in the real world. The fact that she’s a fat girl does little to leaven this discomfiting element of the story. But Jasper bitingly addresses this in the movie’s turning point and frankly made me reframe my thought. That’s good art.

Unfortunately, said scene sends the film into a draggy zone as it dumps Patti into the toilet almost literally. Again, you want her to succeed, but so much of the third act is a spin cycle of failure and the movie begins to feel a bit longer than its 108 minutes. (It’s the only reason I didn’t rate it four stars.) Still, it’s a great strength of the film that, unlike a Pitch Perfect, you really don’t know how it’s going to actually end, even if you think you do.

Patti Cake$ is a great film that defies convention at every turn, like its heroine. She’s too fat. She’s too demure. She’s too raunchy. She’s too white. She’s too “black.” She’s too much, and that’s why they can’t contain her. Watch this one, world; she’s got bars.