Patti Cake$ is the feature film debut from writer/director Geremy Jasper. It is an emotionally complex drama about an overweight white girl who aspires to be a rapper. The story is somewhat formulaic. We've seen various incarnations of this theme before. Eminem's 8 Mile comes to mind as the most popular. That said, Patti Cakes is not a rote redo. This film has a whole lot of heart. It addresses multiple societal issues with a realistic approach. The characters pursue their dreams in an unforgiving world of judgment and ignorance.
Australian actress Danielle Macdonald stars as Patricia Dombrowski. She lives in near poverty New Jersey with her alcoholic mother (Bridgett Everett) and wheelchair-bound, pill-popping grandmother (Cathy Moriarty). Patti suffers from crushing low self-esteem. She's severely obese, disheveled, and works a dead end job; bartending at the scummy local bar. Most nights she finds her mother passed out or puking in the disgusting bathroom.
Patti has a tremendous hidden talent. She is a brilliant rapper, a stone cold wordsmith that can drop lyrics like bombs. Her best friend, Jheri (Siddarth Dhananjay), is a constant affirmation. He convinces Patti to pursue her dream as an artist. Patti faces an ugly torrent of criticism from those around her. She's ridiculed mercilessly for her weight, race, and sex. It's not until she meets a kindred spirit (Mamoudou Athie), does Patti truly break out of her shell.
Patti Cake$ works because it is entirely believable. Geremy Jasper does a fantastic job in selling the environment and the characters place in it. The story is set across the Hudson River in working class New Jersey. Patti and Jheri are literally a few miles away from where they want to be, New York City; but it is still a considerable distance to travel. No one takes Patti seriously. Her own mother calls her a traitor to her race. Neighborhood cretins mock her with the nickname "Dumbo". It is disheartening to see, but a true reflection of society's vile negativity.
The central arch of the story is Patti's desire to be a rapper. I actually think that the subplots regarding her family, friends, and lover steal the show. Danielle Macdonald is amazing in this performance. She plays Patti as a deep, caring person with a wellspring of talent. Many people try to bring her down. It is her own courage that sets her free. Geremy Jasper's script takes the proverbial flower and makes it bloom. Everyone has been downtrodden or told they weren't good enough at some point in life. This underdog has soul. We root for her to succeed and feel damn good when she does.
From Fox Searchlight Pictures, Patti Cake$ is a hidden gem at the August box office. It is a small story, but a must see if you like good drama. Patti is a reminder that all things are possible, if you believe in yourself. I could have done without the rap battle climax, but that's a minor criticism. Danielle Macdonald is stellar in her first starring role. She may well be an Oscar contender come award season.