Patti Cake$ (Fox Searchlight Pictures, R)

Patti Cake$ is the stage name of Patricia Dombrowski, a young female rapper from New Jersey who has been given the moniker of “Dumbo” by her derisive peers. Ostracized by the local rap scene, Patti embarks on a rogue journey to achieve recognition along with her friend, Jheri, and a mysterious loner who calls himself Basterd. While comparable to hip-hop films like 8 Mile, Patti Cake$ more so falls in line with films like We Are the Best from 2013, or even the Pitch Perfect movies, in that it follows a group of musically inclined underdogs who struggle to have their talents seen while trying not to settle for less. The more nuanced concepts and setting distinguishes this film from others by way of grunginess and natural quirk.

Danielle MacDonald’s lead performance as Patti is one of the strongest of the year, no doubt. That aside, Bridget Everett creates one of the most powerful characters of the film as Patti’s mother, Barb, a washed up hair-band singer from the 80s whose Heart and Blondie exploits never quite panned out. Presently an alcoholic and regular barfly, she listens to her one-hit-wonder “Tough Love” on vinyl between karaoke sessions and spats with her daughter and her Nana (Cathy Moriarty, whose supporting role here takes the entire cake). Aside from the musical success story, a turbulent mother-daughter dynamic and the ongoing attempts at reconciliation comprise the heart of the film. Barb neither understands nor approves of Patti’s musical ambitions, coming as she does from a place of bitterness and preconceived notions of hip-hop. There is genuine love and care, however, written into her character which is evident in Everett’s portrayal.

The Bergen County, New Jersey setting, depicted as a bit shabby and working-class, is populated by an equal number of tired workers and lowlifes, providing an environment that fosters Barb’s resentment and Patti’s desperation. These locales are shot in a mostly low-key and realistic style that effectively drabs up the world Barb and Patti live in, although we are given frequent respites. Director Geremy Jasper expertly combines the aesthetic of small-town disenfranchisement with the occasional playful edit or stylized fantasy sequence, such as when we dive into a rap-music-video-dream of Patti’s.

The trio that is formed (titled PB&J after Patti, Basterd and Jheri) represent the diversity that can exist in what seems like exclusive artistic communities, but in a way that is earned and integral to the script so that it never feels preachy. Aside from the hostility Patti faces for her weight and gender, the three are mostly dismissed because their music is different. Jheri, in particular, incorporates sounds from his Indian background into his singing, and Basterd is a black man with a screamo-punk style who likes to use blaring guitar, chaotic production, and protest-like lyrics in his solo work. It is when these three combine their tastes that the music transcends experimentation and becomes compelling for wide audiences, while retaining authenticity and originality, much like what the film achieves with its different parts.

While some plot points come across as a bit too familiar, there’s also plenty of originality in the characters and concepts, not to mention a killer soundtrack, making Patti Cake$ a standout among other films of its kind. | Nic Champion

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