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Patti Cake$
★★★☆☆
First run Theater cinema

Patti Cake$ is the début feature from music video director Geremy Jasper. It tells the story of Patricia Dumbrowski (Danielle Macdonald), an overweight, working-class white girl from Bergen County, New Jersey, who dreams of escaping her dead-end life and achieving stardom as a gangster rapper known as Killa P or Pattie Cake$. The people and places in Patricia’s life serve as constant reminders that she is destined for failure and depression unless she can escape. She lives in a ramshackle dump with her mother Barb (Bridget Everett), a plus-sized woman who once dreamed of big time success as a singer. Barb did some recording back in her twenties but now lives a squalid life of booze, TV, and Karaoke at a local dive bar. Patricia works at this bar, cleans up after her alcoholic mom, and helps care for her ailing grandmother (the always fantastic Cathy Moriarty). The brightest spots in Patricia’s days are when she’s alone with her fantasies of stardom or sharing those dreams and spitting raps with her platonic pal Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay). When these two friends meet up with a punk-Goth, death-metal, guitar player who goes by the name Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie), they form an unlikely musical collaboration. 

Patti Cake$ is an unapologetic crowd pleaser that feels engineered to crossover from festival darling to art-house favorite to mainstream sleeper hit.  The Jersey-born Jasper—who wrote the screenplay, directed, and composed all of Patti Cake$’ solid if appropriately derivative lyrics—has a keen eye for locations and casting, and he understands how to use music in a narrative context. The early scenes, depicting life in a forgotten small town, possess a gritty, lived-in authenticity. The film’s first third feels reminiscent of solid studio pictures like 8 Mile and Saturday Night Fever, which capture a proletarian milieu and package it for mainstream consumption. But about halfway through, Patti Cake$ takes some odd tonal shifts into full-on, music-related fantasy, akin to Dirty Dancing or School of Rock. And by the end, the picture’s Sundance Lab sensibilities are on full displace, as if it’s trying to be the next Little Miss Sunshine or Garden State. All six of the films I just mentioned are terrific, but part of what makes them successful is their unified tone, which Patti Cake$ unfortunately lacks. The film smacks of a talented first-timer trying to heed too much conflicting "expert" advice.

The eclectic, mostly unknown cast makes this one of the breakout films of the year. Australian émigré Macdonald pulls off Patti’s bona fide Jersey attitude with ease and delivers her raps with legitimacy, conviction, and soul. As a screen presence, she is a force to be reckoned with. Equally exciting is Everett—a boisterous comedian, actress and self-described alt-cabaret provocateur whose power ballad singing brings legit vocal chops and compelling musical variation to this hip-hop tale. And the fifty-six year old Moriarty—who, in a career of criminal underuse, has played roles as diverse as Jake LaMotta's gorgeous teenage wife in Raging Bull, the ambitious diva in Soapdish, and the over-the-top religious disciplinarian in But I'm a Cheerleader—nails the Alan Arkinesque shtick required to make the tired indie-trope of a feisty, outspoken, nearly dead grandparent feel a hundred times fresher than it has any right to. Despite its flaws, it would be foolish to miss Patti Cake$ and a shame not to see it in a theater with an audience.

Twitter Capsule:
Exciting, eclectic cast helps compensate for uneven tone in this unapologetic crowd-pleaser.

Directed by Geremy Jasper
Produced by Rodrigo Teixeira, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Michael Gottwald, Dan Janvey, Chris Columbus, and Noah Stahl

Written by Geremy Jasper

With: Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, Siddharth Dhananjay, Mamoudou Athie, McCaul Lombardi, Patrick Brana, MC Lyte, and Cathy Moriarty

Cinematography: Federico Cesca
Editing: Brad Turner
Music: Geremy Jasper

Runtime: 108 min
Color