‘Patti Cake$’ is an underdog story with a hip-hop beat.
Set in the land of chicken Parm, Sinatra and rocky roads to stardom, “Patti Cake$” is a crowdpleaser in good and lessgood ways, developed at the Sundance screenwriting lab and premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January to a warm reception and a $9.5 million distribution deal from Fox Searchlight.
The film ticks a lot of boxes. Underdog triumph. Showbiz triumph. Working-class heroics. Flagrant, often effective filmmaking technique, from a firsttime feature writer-director, Geremy Jasper, trained in music videos (he codirected among others Florence + the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over”). Jasper’s wily and relentless in the ways of which buttons to push, which strings to pull.
It’s wonderfully wellcast. Australian transplant Danielle Macdonald, who never strains for effect, plays Patricia Dombrowski, 23 and tending bar at a Bayonne, N.J., dive while tending to her ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty). Her nana lives with her and her boozy, abrasive, thwarted mother, Barb (cabaret performer Bridget Everett), a conflicted woman who resents her daughter’s talent and general lack of guile.
It’s a tough life, but the young woman who’s been called “Dumbo” as long as she can remember barrels through it, keeping her eye on the prize: a career as a rapper. She’s worked up an act with her best friend Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay); the duo becomes a trio, PBNJ, with the addition of Basterd the Antichrist, a cryptic, supershy phenom of gentle demeanor (played by Mamoudou Athie).
“My verses fulla curses/ cause I’m stuck in dirty Jersey,” Patti spits at one point. Jasper sets up a wish-fulfillment fantasy grounded in realism. Patti reveres a hip-hop mogul and rap idol known as O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), but he’s a false idol, made to be smashed. Our heroine, whose fantasies of stage glory pepper the action like fragments of music videos, endures setbacks and humiliation but finds love and, onstage at a battle of the aspiring rap stars, when her mother shows up at the last second … well, spoiler alert and all that.
You get it. And “Patti Cake$” gets it. Comparisons have been made to “8 Mile” and “Hustle & Flow,” but the film works also with a strong, shamelessly manipulative “Strictly Ballroom” streak of comic whimsy. I liked a lot of “Patti Cake$,” but watching it, first at Sundance and then again the other day, I wanted the movie to back off a little, give its performers more breathing room. I say this realizing a lot of people are rewatching “Strictly Ballroom” for the 40th time this very minute.
My favorite moments blend skillful technique and genuine affection, as when Hareesh, behind his pharmacy counter, uses the intercom system to introduce Patti coming down the aisle like the next big thing. Such casual satisfactions give “Patti Cake$” a sense of place. Macdonald breathes life into the material, the truth and the fictions both.
Siddharth Dhananjay and Danielle Macdonald star in “Patti Cake$.”