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Review: A darling at Sundance and Cannes, Patti Cake$ isn’t perfect, but it will move you

Siddharth Dhananjay, left, and Danielle Macdonald are aspiring hip-hop musicians working to get their big break in Patti Cake$.

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

3 out of 4 stars

Patti Cake$
Written by
Geremy Jasper
Directed by
Geremy Jasper
Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett and Siddharth Dhananjay

Patricia Dombrowski, a.k.a. the rapper Killa-P, a.k.a. Patti Cake$. She's an overweight 23-year-old living in the roughest part of New Jersey. She's been bullied and called Dumbo since she was a kid. Her mom is a drunk who mocks her aspirations. Bill collectors are calling about her sick grandmother. It's a hard-knocks life, but she dreams of rap glory, and writer-director Geremy Jasper makes it impossible not to cheer for her.

Jasper's feature debut hits all the tropes of the underdog story and the comparisons with 8 Mile – the Rocky for aspiring hip-hop artists – are inevitable. Yet Patti Cake$ for the most part avoids feeling like a song you've heard before. It's too big-hearted and genuine not to love.

When we first meet Patti (Danielle Macdonald, who had never rapped a word before landing the role), she is literally dreaming of being anointed hip hop's next superstar by her idol, the rapper O-Z.

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When she wakes up, real life is a whole other story. She lives with her ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) and her mom (Bridget Everett) – a woman who once had singing dreams of her own – is a mess. Patti has to get in her beat-up old Cadillac and get to her job at a dive bar. Everything in her life reeks of failure.No one else might believe in Patti, but her best friend, Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay), a fellow rapper who works in a pharmacy, is so sure of their talent that he manages to keep her going. "All we need is a producer with the fire beats," he tells her.

It's Hareesh who throws Patti in to a rap battle outside of a gas station one night. The guy Patti has a crush on mocks her appearance with such hate that she's nearly crushed. With encouragement from Hareesh, Patti stands tall and throws down. If it's a scene we've watched on screen before, it nevertheless manages to be stirring and epic, thanks largely to Macdonald's singular performance. She conveys Patti's hurt, pain and struggle with just a facial expression, but also the swagger of someone who refuses to allow bullies and circumstance define her.

Patti and Hareesh find their fire beats after meeting a rocker who goes by the moniker Bastard the Antichrist. He has dreadlocks, a face full of piercings and lives in a makeshift cabin in the woods next to a graveyard. It takes some convincing, but together they record a song and form PBNJ, a hip-hop group like one you've never seen before – one that even includes Patti's wheelchair-bound grandma.

Their talent is undeniable. Of course, that alone isn't enough to succeed. Patti's mom, Barb, sneers at her, belittles her. She thinks rap is a waste of time Patti has no claim to. "Why don't you act your age?" Patti asks her in the middle of a fight. "Why don't you act your race?" Barb fires back. Everett, a cabaret performer and comedian, plays Barb with bitterness and sometimes straight cruelty, and yet manages to rise above the stereotype of the failed dreamer so crushed by life she can do nothing but try to destroy those who still dare to dream.

Even with a mix tape recorded, Patti and her friends still need to hustle. They get their break when they are invited to perform at a showcase of up-and-coming hip-hop acts. Of course they do. Movies such as this one always culminate in the big fight, the big battle, the big chance to prove yourself once and for all.

Yet the best of these movies make you cheer for the hero all the same.

Patti Cake$ was a smash at Sundance, and it received a 10-minute long standing ovation at Cannes. The film isn't a complete triumph. Yes, it manages to work with many old conventions in a way that wins you over, but it is still working with many old conventions. But like Patti's flow, it will move you all the same.

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