Coming second only to The Big Sick, Geremy Jasper’s debut feature as writer-director was a hot property at Sundance. Due to relatively low-key publicity (at least, in comparison to the Apatow-funded hit), I had next to no idea what to expect from Patti Cake$, which turned out to be a rare standout thrill amongst the overhyped marketing deluge usually associated with festival darlings.
Relative newcomer Danielle Macdonald stars as Patricia Dombrowski (mockingly referred to as ‘Dumbo’ by the dregs of her New Jersey hometown), an aspiring rap artist. We first find her burdened with debt, scorned by her alcoholic mother (Bridget Everett) and fat-shamed by all but her Nana (Cathy Moriarty) and best buddy Jheri (Siddarth Dhananjay plays her partner in double act ‘Thick N’ Thin’). At an open mic night, she encounters Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a retiring loner whose musical talent immediately attracts Patricia and Jheri’s attention, and the unlikely duo becomes a trio, with Nana reluctantly providing raspy backing vocals for their new group, PBNJ.
Opting more for an underdog sincerity than the comparatively fantastical Sing Street, the tone of Pattie Cake$ is best summed up by a powerful moment when Patricia’s mother, Barb (herself a failed musician), performs a karaoke version of These Dreams by Heart. Her wavering voice overpowers the sound mix and the camera gazes into Patricia’s watery eyes as she’s dealt a gutting reminder of what the future holds, should she fail. Then the vignette is cut short, and suddenly we’re in the bar’s grotty bathroom as Patricia helps Barb bring up her booze.
While there are these moments of great melancholy, the accompanying sprinkles of humour help offset them nicely. During an interview for a second job, Patricia is asked “Where do you see yourself in five years?”, and the following display of her mind’s eye reads like the American indie equivalent of Rey gazing skyward to launching spaceships, only with added champagne baths. The conviction and yearning conveyed is hard to pull off without feeling saccharine, but Macdonald (aided by Federico Cesca’s surprisingly intimate cinematography) sells it beautifully. If there is any justice in this world, she, Dhananjay and Athie will soon be huge stars.
There’s always a great danger in underdog stories that the supporting cast are left wanting compared to the lead, but Jheri, Basterd and Barb (Everett is monumentally strong in a somewhat clichéd role) all have their chance to shine in a win for cinematic diversity of age, gender, body type and race. Nana is treated more as a motivational lever or comic relief than a character, but that feels more emblematic of the genre Patti Cake$ wishes to inhabit. It occasionally samples familiar beats (even to those who’ve not seen 8 Mile or Hustle & Flow), though it does so with a fresh, homespun energy that calls to mind the boundless vigour of Sean Baker’s Tangerine. Oh, and the music is really, really good. It’s authentic and polished (sometimes too much), but never fails to have your knee jigging in time to the rhyme and – despite overwhelming odds – deserves to be an Oscar frontrunner.
The wit, power and progressive attitude of Patti Cake$ promise great things for all involved, but only if it proves as much a winner with the mainstream as it has with the festival crowd. Don’t let this winning single end up an obscure album track on the release calendar. Tender, ferocious and charming in equal measure, it boasts real heart and leaves you with a grin visible from neighbouring cities.
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