Film Review: Patti Cake$ (USA, 2017) constantly subverts our expectations

Patti Cake$ is the kind of movie that could have gone horribly wrong. The story of an overweight, white (trash) suburban girl gunning for glory in the hip-hop scene isn’t the most accessible story, nor is it culturally appropriate. Thanks to the wit of writer/director/composer Geremy Jasper though, Patti Cake$ disarms any of these potential hot buttons by addressing them with a sense of casual frankness; “Why don’t you act your age?” Patti (Australian find Danielle Macdonald), real name Patricia Dombrowski, asks her lush of a mother, Barb (Bridget Everett). “Why don’t you act your race?” is Barb’s snappy retort.

It’s this kind of honesty present in Jasper’s script that elevates Patti Cake$ beyond the simplicities one would expect in a story basing itself around a white girl whose appreciation for hip-hop is more a religion to follow than just a genre to enjoy. Under her alias Killa P, Patti dreams of a lifestyle far grander than the one she is afforded, and alongside the equally ambitious Hareesh (Siddarth Dhananjay), a pharmacist whose moniker is that of Jheri, she spits out rhymes far sassier and coherent than people are willing to give her credit for; an early scene where Patti participates in an impromptu rap battle highlights Macdonald’s effortless knack for reciting rhymes, even though the scene itself is laced with a cruelty due to her opponent attacking her plus-size.

Indeed, Patti’s size, and the subsequent mocking it induces, would be enough for us to feel sorry for her, and perhaps in a lesser, more stereotypical production, that’s all we would be required to do, but as sculpted by Jasper’s words in the hands of Macdonald’s fierceness, Patti gives just as good as she gets. Moments where we expect the film to pander to us are alarmingly in short supply, so when it introduces a romance element between Patti and new rap recruit “Basterd” (Mamoudou Athie), an African-American punk rocker, it feels anything but out of place in a production that constantly subverts our expectations.

As confident as Jasper appears as a filmmaker, Patti Cake$‘s strongest asset is young Danielle Macdonald. Easily adopting a New Jersey twang in her delivery, the Australian talent is revelatory as the titular creation.  For the film to work we have to believe in Patti’s talents (and not just let the film make up our minds for us), as well as hone that sense that the odds aren’t always going to be in her favour, and Macdonald infuses the character with a sincerity that allows us to never be anything but completely invested in her plight.

Managing to avoid anything overly trite in its structure, as well as bypassing sequences that could be potentially embarrassing to view,  Patti Cake$ own its cliched outline and flips it confidently with a welcome sense of wit, cynicism, and conviction.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Patti Cake$ hits select Australian cinemas on Thursday, September 14th