One of the most buzzed-about films at Sundance this year was Patti Cake$, a hip-hop film about a girl with dreams of stardom, directed by first-timer and Jersey native Geremy Jasper. It was the subject of one of the biggest deals of that particular festival, and was acquired by Fox Searchlight for a whole lot of cash (which was surprising, given that their last major play like that, Birth of a Nation, blew up in their fucking faces). It’s been making the festival rounds, and made a stop last night at the Brattle Theatre as a part of IFFB, and it mostly lives up to the hype.
Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Mcdonald), a.k.a. Killer P, wants nothing more than to get the fuck out of her Jersey town and move into the big city, flush with cash from a new record deal and in the good graces of her idol, rapper OZ (Sahr Ngaujah). Her mom (a restrained Bridget Everett) is still suffering from the destruction of her own musical dreams, and her Nana (Cathy Moriarty) has medical bills that are starting to pile up.
She writes her lyrics while tending the bar at her local sad-bastard watering hole, and works with her best friend, hook-artist, and never-ending wellspring of positivity Jheri (Siddarth Dhananjay) on her bars while they eat chicken parms on the hood of her car, staring at the city. After going to a shitty local show at the VFW, she meets Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), an “anarchist anti-christ” who squats in the woods near a cemetery, hangs skeletal sculptures of the Jersey devil on his walls, and can make one hell of a beat. Along with Patti’s Nana, they form a rap group called PBNJ and put out a demo. Can they make it big? Will real life destroy Patti’s dreams? It’s not that hard of a guess.
It goes without saying that Patti Cake$ follows its formula step-by-step and doesn’t bring much new to the table, but when the characters are allowed to breathe and interact, the movie has some raucous charm, and the writing is frequently brilliant. Macdonald gives a breakout performance and is easily the best part of the entire film — she’s fierce and talented yet stunningly human, and she feels like a believable underdog. It helps that the film gives her enough to go through, though the pile-on of troubles in the falling action seems to verge on torture porn. The film is cast smartly around her, with her other compatriots in PBNJ allowed enough room to assert their own identities, but not enough to overwhelm or distract from her central core. Special mention must be given to Dhananjay and Athie, who take what would be thankless sidekick roles and make them fun and interesting (especially Athie, whose voice sounds like Keith David’s and Dave Chappelle’s Prince impression had a baby).
Of course, the obvious comparisons are 8 Mile and Hustle and Flow, though this is far less grimy and at least close to par with the first (though there’ll be no “mom’s spaghetti” memes coming out of this one) and is both significantly funnier and less kitchen-sink than the latter, but a more obvious cinematic antecedent would probably be Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. That movie, with its handheld verite, ’80s dressing, masterful use of its New Jersey setting, and unrelenting brutality towards its protagonist, occasionally comes to mind throughout Patti Cake$ runtime, and it acts as a very nice coat of concealer to hide the twee lurking beneath the surface. There’s a version of this film out there in the multiverse where it looks and feels almost exactly like Little Miss Sunshine (which Cathy Moriarty’s Nana would just be Alan Arkin outright), with the occasional Guy Ritchie-style flourishes being the main course instead of an occasional flourish, and Jasper deserves some credit for his restraint. It manages those two tones well, and the result is something that feels (pretty much) fresh.
Patti Cake$ will probably find a broad audience, and if last night’s screening was any indication, it’ll play great when it hits theaters on July 7.
Independent Film Festival Boston runs from April 26 to May 3. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus and @Vanyaland617 for updates throughout the fest.