Patti Cake$ is a vibrant, uplifting underdog-makes-good coming-of-age tale with a joyous rebel yell of individualism at its pulsating rapnroll heart. The feel-good movie of the year.
Danielle Macdonald turns in a charismatic and authoritative lead performance as aspiring New Jersey rapper/hip-hop artist Patricia in Patti Cake$, the feature movie debut of music video director Geremy Jasper. Prior to Patti Cake$ she had never rapped – hard to believe! Ditto that she’s from country NSW: her NJ accent is flawless. But most impressive of all is the energy and emotional dimensions she brings to her character. Macdonald radiates star quality.
The story follows a familiar underdog-makes-good trajectory. Patricia works shifts at a sleazy bar to support her alcoholic battler mother Barb (Bridget Everett), and wheelchair-bound but groovy grandma (Cathy Moriarty), with whom she shares a shitty New Jersey apartment. Like her broken mother, who in her youth dreamed of a music career and now has to be content with drunken karaoke performances, Patricia, aka Killa-P, seems destined for disappointment. She’s overweight, white and female – hardly ideal credentials in the macho African-American hip-hop mileu. It doesn’t help her cause that she has formed a musical partnership with an Indian guy, Jheri (Siddarth Dhananjay), who works (discontentedly) behind the counter at a nearby pharmacy – he is disparagingly referred to as “Bollywood” by one of the neighbourhood hip-hop crew.
However, in a car-park slag-off with a white male rapper, Patricia shows she has the goods, besting her antagonist in an increasingly heated exchange of rapped putdowns. She receives a smack in the face for her trouble.
When Patricia and Jheri team up with introverted, multi-pierced African-American noise-rocker guitarist Basterd The Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie), whose real name is Bob (his father is a lawyer)… guess what? Yep, they click musically, record a demo CD and suddenly The Dream looks reachable for the three of them.
But of course, it ain’t that easy – there’s trouble ahead, culminating in Patricia giving up after being confronted with some uncomfortable realities that are brilliantly encapsulated in the concluding jabs of an argument with her mother:
Patricia: Act your age.
Barb: Act your race.
The topic of cultural appropriation is in high currency at the moment, and it is inevitable that a film featuring a white rapper protagonist will cop some flack. Jasper has anticipated this, and takes a sensible position that cuts through the current hysteria of earnest white liberal hand-wringers. That is, a genre – rap/hip-hop in this case – is not the cultural property of its originators, but if you’re going to participate as an artist, find your own voice or expect ridicule.
After learning this lesson the hard way, Patricia starts writing lyrics drawn from her own experiences as a white working class 20-something woman rather than merely imitating her rapper heroes, changes her look, and discards her Killa-P pseudonym for Patti Cake$ (her adored grandma’s nickname for her). You can more or less predict the rest.
Patti Cake$ is hard-edged and gritty on the outside, but has a soft, gooey centre. Sure, there’s some clichéd stuff in there, and it gets sentimental and naff towards the end, but I was long won over by then – especially by Macdonald – and happy to go with it. Hardcore rap devotees will sneer, and there’ll be no pleasing some of the handwringers, but I say leave ’em to their purism. For me, Patti Cakes$ is the feel-good movie of the year, thus far at least.
Australian release date: Patti Cake$ screening in cinemas from 14 Sep 2017
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