At first glance, ‘Patti Cake$’ appears to be the sort of over-stylized and sentimentalized dramedy that gives Sundance a bad name. At second glance, it actually gives that overdone genre a good name. The film is a warm and charming little diversion that works because it doesn’t stretch too far in ambition or heart-string pulling.
Danielle Macdonald stars as the titular Patti. She’s a New Jersey burnout, working thankless bar jobs while nursing her grumpy, ill grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) and tending to her alcoholic mother (Bridget Everett). Medical bills weigh down the family, as do a sea of broken dreams. Patti still has big ambitions, though. Specifically, she wants to be a hip-hop star and has the rhymes and life to deliver the goods. The trouble is that she’s too shy to share her talents with anyone other than her goofy best friend (Siddharth Dhananjay) who fancies himself a hype man. After a series of fresh embarrassments, Patti finally decides to go for it. She finds an eccentric noise rock local (Mamoudou Athie) to do her beats and takes a shot. Obviously, setbacks are coming, but the girl seems talented enough to offer hope.
A number of “X meets Y” elevator pitches could be used to describe ‘Patti Cake$’. It’s ‘Precious’ meets ‘8 Mile’ with a little ‘Rocky’ and a handful of surrealists dream sequences thrown in for good measure. Writer/director Geremy Jasper gets away with all of the obvious influences on display because the movie still feels personal and, more importantly, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. The film bounces around with a charmingly woozy tone. It’s hilarious and sweet, but also harsh and heavy at times. A New Jersey native, Jasper knows how to shoot the area as a pit of despair, with desperate strip clubs and abandoned strip malls gazing out onto a Manhattan skyline that seems so impossibly far away while being so close. He exaggerates for comedy and emotion, dipping into fantasy sequences without warning and playing up Jersey decay to cartoonish excess. However, the movie doesn’t feeling mocking or mawkish. It comes from a real place; Jasper just presents the fairy tale and/or nightmare version.
The cast is spectacular, with the relatively unknown Danielle Macdonald shining at the center. She’s tough and funny and honest and worth following on the journey. She nails her rap songs with power and style (the lyrics written by Jasper are surprisingly strong as well, which doesn’t hurt) and delivers her hopeful dreamer with authentic punch. Elsewhere, Siddarth Dhananjay is a powerhouse of charm and misplaced confidence in his first big screen role. Bridget Everett proves to have surprising depth as a dramatic actress to match her established comedy chops, and Cathy Moriarty croaks out her bitter grandma role with wit and heart. This gang of lovable losers is easy to fall in love. They’re all just broken enough to feel like developed humans rather than screenwriting tropes. The performances leap off the screen and fit perfectly into Jasper’s stylized frames.
Of course, ‘Patti Cake$’ also very much falls within a certain brand of inspirational dramedy formula and eventually succumbs to convention. The final act is pretty easy to predict from the first frames. This isn’t a story with many unexpected twists. However, the trick with these sorts of movies is the delivery. Jasper might hit all the expected beats, but he doesn’t always do so in the expected ways or in the obvious order. There’s enough surreal fun, gentle humor, and harsh naturalism bouncing around to make most of the clichés feel fresh, especially with a cast this strong. Although those who are predisposed to despise this type of movie as middlebrow manipulation will hate it regardless, anyone willing to buy into a fairy tale dramedy when it’s delivered with style and humor might be surprised.