All hail, Patti Cake$! The standout performance of the year goes to Australian actress Danielle Louise Macdonald for her sensational turn as a blue collar aspiring rapper from New Jersey. The suburban drama, from writer-director Geremy Jasper, weaves a heartfelt and hilarious tale that follows the adage of never giving up on your dreams.
Young Patricia Dombrowski, who is saddled with the unfortunate moniker “Dumbo”, has a tough life. She works several jobs to support her hard-drinking single mother (Bridget Everett) and ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty).
She also deals with regular mockery from local kids who like to poke fun at her weight. Yet somehow an indomitable spirit persists as she uses her spare time to frequently pen lyrics and rap verses in hopes of one day becoming a global superstar.
Thankfully, not everyone is mean to Patti. Her perpetually positive bestie Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) works at a pharmacy and constantly tries to mastermind their respective music careers. The pair eventually strike up an unusual friendship with a self-proclaimed anarchist loner called Basterd (Mamoudou Athie).
Quirky characters are one of the film’s strongest assets. The story does conjure familiar elements and hits typical genre beats. However, what saves Patti Cake$’ somewhat predictable plot is the palpable life force of its players.
To call Macdonald’s role as Patricia ‘star-making’ would be a gross understatement; she is simply transcendent here. The actress has popped up in various TV shows (Glee, American Horror Story, 2 Broke Girls, The Middle) over the years but this movie is unequivocally her breakout party. She balances her protagonist’s gruff, rigid exterior with just enough pain and longing, making for a brilliant portrayal.
The movie certainly doesn’t offer recognizable A-list talent in terms of household name cast members. Siddharth Dhananjay stumbles a bit with some scenes but his good-natured best friend character is affectionately admirable.
Yet, what some of the cast lacks in experience is more than made for with the help of two other talented females in addition to Macdonald. Bridget Everett (Inside Amy Schumer) is pitch perfect in her rather sad portrayal of Patti’s mom and veteran actress Cathy Moriarty, known for iconic roles in films such as Raging Bull and Soapdish, churns out another memorable, albeit brief, performance.
Visually, Patti Cake$ is always engaging to watch. Director Geremy Jasper, along with cinematographer Federico Cesca, captures the rugged streets of crumbling New Jersey neighbourhoods and industrial areas with stark realism tinged with just enough fleeting beauty.
The other brilliant aspect of the flick is how it details the intricate and complex process of songwriting. These sequences are sometimes stitched together in crisply edited montages. One in particular involves Patti and her two cohorts metamorphosing a blistering heavy metal song into an easy-flowing hip-hop track inside a dilapidated shack in the woods. It’s a simple yet highly effective scene that helps give the movie a signature stamp.
In the end, the story eschews Hollywood formula and never reaches the dizzying rags-to-riches climax that some may expect. This refreshing approach helps to ground the film and give it a visceral, relatable quality. Some audience members may hope for a quintessential fairy-tale ending but that would be a cop out here.
Don’t let this late summer indie gem pass you by. Patti Cake$ is a poignant charmer featuring one of the year’s best performances and earns 4 out of 5 pieces of popcorn.
Playing in select theatres. Rated 14A and is 108 minutes long.