The underdog musician movie will never be as prolific as, say, the underdog sports flick, but if done right, the inspirational impact of the former might be enough to spur a regular visitor to the local karaoke bar to aspire to bigger and better things. The best examples in recent years include the 2013 Coen brothers’ drama Inside Llewyn Davis and the 2016 Irish charmer Sing Street. It helps when the soundtrack is memorable, too.
In Patti Cake$, first time writer/director and former indie rocker Geremy Jasper attempts to tap into his own autobiographical story as a frustrated musician in search of a break in the industry. He finds his muse in little-known Australian actress Danielle Macdonald, who portrays the title character, Patricia Dombroski (aka Patti Cake$, aka Killer P), a plus-sized white girl from New Jersey with dreams to make it as a rapper.
With an unsupportive mother (Bridget Everett of Inside Amy Schumer) whose life as a singer didn’t turn out the way she wanted after she got pregnant, Patti puts her own group of outcasts together to help her find a way to escape Jersey and reach a stage where riotous fans will chant her name as she spits rhymes. Included in her motley crew are her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), disabled grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) and mysterious pariah and anarchist Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), who has all the equipment to lay down Patti’s sick beats.
Like the main protagonists B-Rabbit (Eminem) in 2002’s 8 Mile and Djay (Terrance Howard) in 2005’s Hustle & Flow, it’s easy to root for Patti because of the untapped talent she possesses and passion she has for the genre. Macdonald’s convincing performance as a rap artist (she’s far from it in real life) is impressive and effortless. The crowd-pleasing narrative, however, doesn’t raise itself above the clichés of other underdog pictures that have come before it. It’s a tough assignment for any coming-of-age film like this to find a unique angle to take, but very few of the themes that Patti Cake$ tackles feel substantial.
Macdonald is the most consistent element of the drama and elevates the storytelling through her empowering and likable persona. If anything, Patti as an independent female character is noteworthy and important, especially since today’s hip-hop cultural landscape isn’t a burgeoning one for white female rappers (Kreayshawn, anyone?). For a first feature film, Jasper is best at creating a deprived setting and situation for Patti to revolt against through her music. Catchy original songs like “Patti $ea$on,” “PBNJ” and “mylifesfuckinawesome” add to some of the charming moments, but by not loosening its grip enough on the conventional formula and not fleshing out a lot of the relationships, Patti Cake$ ends up being an exclusively solo show.