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Patti Cake$

Patti Cake$ tells the story of Patti Dombrowski, aka Dumbo, aka Patti Cake$, aka… well, she has a lot of different monikers, but she typically goes by “Killer P” (Danielle Macdonald). She’s a plus-sized 23-year-old white girl living in New Jersey, with big dreams of rap superstardom. Literally, the movie opens with a dream sequence to that effect.

In Patti’s corner is another wannabe rapper, a stick-thin Muslim named Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). Later on, they find a producer in a soft-spoken and mercurial anarchist who calls himself Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie). Together, our crew of misfits — dubbed “PB N J” — puts together a mixtape to try and make it in the rap game.

In the other corner, Patti has a trainwreck of a mother (Barb, played by Bridget Everett) who was on track to be a rock star before pregnancy put that to a halt. Not that she’s bitter in the least about that, especially not towards Patti, of course. So now Barb is trying to relive the long-past glory days, warbling karaoke while getting blackout drunk. Patti also has an ailing grandmother (Nana, played by Cathy Moriarty) who’s burying the family in medical debt. And since Barb is effectively useless, of course the burden falls on Patti to take useless dead-end jobs, working herself to the bone to make ends meet.

All the while, everyone keeps telling her she’s fat, she’s ugly, she’s useless, she’ll never make it as a rapper and why would she ever want to be a gangster pumping out garbage that’s not real music… you get the idea. In fact, let’s be honest, you should already be familiar with the whole premise.

The “small fish in a big pond” story of some upstart rising to fame and fortune has long since been done to death. Even in the context of a misfit who seems laughably at odds with their chosen career, it’s been done to death. (“A Jamaican bobsled team? How wacky is that?!”) And sure enough, the plot unfolds pretty much exactly as you might expect, beat for beat. And sometimes, contrived measures become necessary in getting to the next beat like clockwork. But what saves this movie is in the fine details.

First and foremost, this is a movie about rap. Of course the film addresses the mainstream perception of rap: Flashy clothes and jewelry, expensive liquor, tons of drugs, and so on. Additionally, this is a genre heavily dominated by men, so of course there’s a constant stream of sexist bullshit flying around. Oh, and we can’t forget the “person of color” aspect, as black people feel very possessive about something so strongly associated with black history and culture.

So into this image-conscious world of black men comes a broke-ass plus-sized white woman. There is seriously no end to the misogyny she’s subjected to, and that’s before she gets accused of appropriating black culture. This is how the story establishes its stakes, showing us what Patti is up against. It also gives us a reason to root for the character because deep down, we know all that stuff is bullshit.

When it comes to rap, the number one unforgivable sin is to not be credible. Whether you’re rapping about how dangerous and wealthy you are, and/or whether you’re making some sociopolitical argument, the absolute fastest way to become a punchline is to spit rhymes without the ability to back it up. Anyone can say “I’m going to shoot you.” But a truly great rapper is someone who can say “I’m going to shoot you” with such devastating wordplay and dizzying flow that it feels like you seriously just got shot.

Rap is nothing more or less than proof that words have power. As with any other art, it’s words and imagery given weight and impact. And as with any other art, there is no one right way to go about it, and it doesn’t belong to any one demographic. Everyone will have their own approaches and methods, their own perspectives and messages, and their own way of failing or making it big. All that ultimately matters is The Craft, and how much sincere heart is put into it.

The movie expresses all of that in a brilliantly subtle way, as Patti slowly learns to stop emulating others and make it on her own terms. In fact, precisely because she’s a woman in a man’s game, her strengths and weaknesses are all so wildly out of the ordinary that she can take the competition off-guard in some remarkable ways. Moreover, she never raps about “the black experience” or spending tons of money, or anything else she knows nothing about. All of her lyrics stem from her own life experiences and struggles, so it all comes from an authentic place. Haters call her a poser, but we always know better. Sure, she might exaggerate a bit in terms of confidence, but that pushes Patti to develop more confidence so she can effectively sell her rhymes as a talented rapper and a damn sexy woman.

Danielle Macdonald delivers the performance of a lifetime here, and she hasn’t even begun to hit her stride yet. Everyone else in the cast does okay, to be clear, but they’re barely worth mentioning because every character was so clearly designed around Patti. The entire movie rested on Macdonald’s shoulders, demanding that this young actress be put through the whole emotional gamut while slinging phenomenal verses worthy of the next great up-and-coming rapper. It’s a tall order, but she had it fucking nailed from start to finish.

But what’s interesting about everyone else in the supporting cast is the level of nuance involved. We’ve got sympathetic characters who occasionally do something brash or malicious. We’ve got characters who are total assholes except when they make one little gesture to show something that just might be more complicated than a cartoon villain. And then we’ve got Patti’s employers, whose acts of dickishness are so frequent yet so fleeting that it begs the question of whether they really are misogynist assholes or if they’re too busy to know any better.

It’s really quite remarkable how the filmmakers maintain the delicate balance of expressing just enough humanity for each character. When the balance works, anyway. There are sadly too many times in which a character’s development arc will make a massive vertical spike for no apparent reason except that the plot said so. Likewise, the looming threat of bankruptcy and eviction is a pivotal motivation for Patti and her family, and a driving factor for the plot… until it isn’t. Right when it seems like money problems should be bigger than ever and impossible to overcome, the film abruptly shifts focus to Patti’s rap career and pretty much entirely forgets about the money issue altogether. It’s a frustrating oversight, to say the least.

As for miscellaneous notes, I loved all the little technical touches throughout. There’s some very strategic use of extreme close-ups and handheld camera, some fantastic choices with lighting and color (especially the color green), and the sound design is wonderful. Kudos are also due to the editing, which expresses the passage of time and Patti’s own headspace in some beautifully clever ways. And of course there’s some sparing yet remarkable use of visual effects to show Patti’s more creative moments. My personal favorite example comes when Patti finally gets to meet her idol, and it takes a while for us to find out just how much of that meeting was only playing out in her head.

Patti Cake$ has some serious issues trying to juggle so many character arcs and storylines, and it all amounts to what’s basically a cookie-cutter “rise to fame and fortune” plot. Yet the film gets by on charm, due in no small part to a powerhouse lead performance from Danielle Macdonald. Moreover, the film is brimming with style and heart, wonderfully funny and emotionally gripping. While it’s true that the film can’t get around to everything in only 100 minutes, that also means the film is never in danger of overstaying its welcome.

It’s a charming and humorous story that takes a tired premise and makes something truly inspirational out of it. That is more than reason enough to give it a strong recommendation.

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