Patti Cake$ (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Overweight white girl dreams of becoming a hip-hop superstar. What could have been a one-note, mean-spirited joke is turned into a deeply humanistic film about a dreamer with talent and imagination to back up her aspirations. Writer-director Geremy Jasper ensures that there is a compelling story that surrounds interesting characters and so even viewers who may not consider themselves to be fans of rap music will be regaled nonetheless by the charm of this most surprising film debut.
I admired its confidence in showing rough neighborhoods and homes that feel cramped, messy, lived-in. Although the material moves at a constant forward momentum, the rhythm and tone welcome observations of most minute details: what a person chooses to wear for work versus while relaxing at home, how she carries herself with a friend versus an employer, the exhausted look in ones eyes for having endured one shift too many because there are bills to be paid. The film captures the environment and the lifestyles of those struggling to get by and yet it is not a depressing story. On the contrary, the material is full of hope.
Danielle Macdonald delivers a stunning, star-making performance as Patti/Killa P. Scenes when she is required to rap are equally strong as instances when she must convince us of her character undergoing life-defining changes, whether it be in terms of how she perceives her music is going or how her relationships with those most important to her (Bridget Everett, Cathy Moriarty) are evolving, for better or worse. Some films that rely heavily on a musical biopic approach usually rest on the music or the drama in the subject’s life. This is because sometimes the strength of the lead leans toward one way. But not here. Macdonald is the whole package; take any span of fifteen minutes and note of the range of her performance.
In a way, “Patti Cake$” reminds me of John Carney’s devilishly endearing “Sing Street.” Both films tell the story of artists with dreams of making it big someday. The characters are frustrated by—and yet elevated by—their respective hometowns. Hope courses through just underneath the dramatic twists and turns. Important lessons are right behind crushing disappointments. And neither are above making fun of the characters for who they are, what they look like, how they act. Both are painfully honest at times and always highly watchable.
“Patti Cake$” succeeds because it works as a dramatic film first. Although a few familiar tropes are employed, like the alcoholic mother subplot and having to form a group in which members have widely different personalities, these are easily overlooked because the screenplay and performances ooze authenticity. The material is capable of being fun and emotional, sometimes at a drop of a hat. Like great rap lyrics, the film is not simply intelligent, or clever, or any one thing. It aspires to tell us something about society, our place in it, the hypocrisies and failings of the human condition.