Patti Cake$ **1/2

Sundance darling has wonderful moments but ultimately the songs and story are lacking.

Is it worth $10? Yes

There’s no room for Patricia Dombrowski in the rap world. She’s an overweight white girl from New Jersey who’s laughed at and rejected whenever she dares to ask for a chance. But she wouldn’t be an inspiring dreamer, and we wouldn’t have “Patti Cake$,” if she didn’t try.

She’s earnest and likeable and we want her to succeed, which is why it’s a shame writer/director Geremy Jasper’s movie isn’t more of a success. Contrivances, melodrama and predictability hinder an otherwise engaging narrative that at times has us dancin’ in our seats.

Patti (Danielle Macdonald) can see the bright lights of Manhattan across the Hudson River, but she’s far from having her dreams come true. She’s a lowly bartender whose alcoholic mother (Bridgett Everett) had a promising singing career that was dashed when she became pregnant with Patti. Money was then and continues to be an issue, so much so that they can’t even pay Patti’s grandmother’s (Cathy Moriarty) medical bills.

But Patti dreams. With the rap name “Patti Cake$,” she and best friend Jheri  (Siddharth Dhananjay), who’s Indian and works as a pharmacist, create music in their spare time. Opportunities knock, doors open and close. When they meet a sound mixer who’s a self-described anarchist (Mamoudou Athie), they get even closer to making their dreams a reality.

Jasper’s film hits typical hangout spots such as bowling alleys and diners, and if you’ve ever been to Jersey the divided highway will look notably familiar. Keeping the film grounded in the small-town nature of Patti’s life means we’re constantly reminded of how much she yearns to escape it, which in turn makes each blow to the contrary sting that much more. Try all she wants, she could still end up stuck there; it’s not the worst thing in the world, except when you consider it’s the last thing she wants.

The music is catchy enough to stick in your ear – especially the songs “Tough Love” and “P, B & J” – but not necessarily good enough to make you want to buy the soundtrack. In a way this makes sense – these are unproven amateurs creating the music, after all. At the same time, this is a professionally made feature film that we’ve paid money to see. Can’t help but wish the music was a little better. 

Regardless, the real revelation and appeal of “Patti Cake$” lies in Danielle Macdonald, the heretofore unknown actress who plays Patti. She will remind some, both physically and in terms of singing prowess, of Rebel Wilson (“Pitch Perfect”), which is oddly apropos given that both Macdonald and Wilson are Australian. But consider that for moment: An Australian actress learned how to rap and mastered a New Jersey accent, and it all feels lived in and natural. Depending on the popularity of the film, this could be a star-making turn for Macdonald.

The plot will remind some of “Hustle & Flow” (2005), which was a great movie, and Eminem’s “8 Mile” (2002), which was a good movie. “Patti Cake$” is a notch below those, yet respectable enough in its own right to be worthy of your attention. Give it a chance – like Patti it’s not perfect, but it will win you over by the end.

Did you know?
Macdonald received a standing ovation after the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Jan. 2017; Fox Searchlight purchased the distribution rights for $9.5 million – the film’s budget was $1 million!