Danielle Macdonald is a born star. Like the character she plays, Patti Dombrowski, she’s got skills and charisma, and the camera loves her. Hopefully, this movie will serve as Macdonald’s well-earned breakout. But Patti, at least, has to fight full-time just to be seen.
Why? Because she doesn’t fit any of the standards society demands. As Geremy Jasper’s poignant indie debut reminds us, our appearance-obsessed culture has a tendency to confuse the ordinary with the extraordinary. But occasionally, true talent does win out. That, anyway, is what struggling bartender Patti wants to believe whenever she transforms into rap goddess Patti Cake$, aka Killa P.
For now, this dramatic transformation happens only in Patti’s bedroom, and only in her dreams. For now, the local guys she grew up with still call her Dumbo and Miss Piggy and White Precious, as they have since she was an overweight teen. And for now, she still lives at home in a dead-end corner of New Jersey with her cynical, emphysema-ridden Nana (a scene-stealing Cathy Moriarty) and bitter, alcoholic mother Barb (powerhouse comedian and cabaret star Bridget Everett, “Fun Mom Dinner”).
When Patti writes her ferocious rhymes, she does it on her break at a scuzzy dive bar. If she laughs, it’s only after her best friend Hareesh (charming newcomer Siddharth Dhananjay) clocks out of his numbing job at a drugstore. “I’m 23,” she tells Hareesh in a moment of bleak reality, “and I ain’t done s—.”
Most of the time, though, the two fantasize about how they’re going to set the world on fire with their songs. (Jasper, a former music-video director and musician, wrote the original soundtrack.)
They get a step closer when they meet punk loner Basterd (Mamoudou Athie, ill-served by an underwritten role). The silent, enigmatic Basterd is an anarchist artist living behind a grimy underpass aptly nicknamed Gates of Hell. None of them have it easy. All of them want out. And music is the only way.
It has to be said that the above description makes “Patti Cake$” sound like a pretty typical Sundance crowd pleaser. Which, technically, it is. But what sets it apart from other overpraised festival indies is its tremendously gifted lead.
From the very first scene, Macdonald allows us to see straight into Patti’s soul. She imbues this fierce underdog with such a perfect mix of humor, strength and vulnerability that we’re fully and continually invested. Each time Jasper (who also wrote the script) throws another hurdle in Patti’s path, we wince with genuine worry.
Some of these ominously-shot obstacles do feel too obvious, from the shifty drug dealer (McCaul Lombardi, “American Honey”) threatened by her talent to the hypocritical rap impresario (Sahr Ngaujah, “Money Monster”) she idolizes. Jasper doesn’t take the time to flesh out these familiar characters, perhaps because even he realizes they’re clichés. He trips up a little at the end, too, as if he’s overly concerned about giving everyone the grand finale they paid for.
But because Macdonald is so good, these complaints repeatedly recede. She may be an Australian actress playing a Jersey bartender, but the authenticity of her alienation propels the film.
It’s not the big issues that bring Patti down, it’s the daily struggles. She’s demeaned or dismissed by nearly everyone she meets, both because she’s a woman and because she doesn’t have the knowledge, background or dress size required to access any culture outside her own.
As bluntly represented by both Nana and Barb, poverty, misery, and loneliness are Patti’s working-class birthright. To keep getting up, let alone moving forward, begins to feel like a task so monumental as to be nearly impossible. When she stares into the mirror, rapping “My life is f—in’ awesome,” it’s not a boast, but a call of desperate defiance.