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FILM REVIEW: Indie Sundance Hit PATTI CAKE$ Will Be Music To Your Ears

FILM REVIEW: Indie Sundance Hit PATTI CAKE$ Will Be Music To Your Ears

You’ve never heard of any of the actors or most of the talent involved with the upcoming indie film, a hit at Sundance, Patti Cake$. The film’s star, Danielle Macdonald, boasts as her main credit a turn in the movie Every Secret Thing. Heard of it? Actress Bridget Everett plays her mom (Barb), but most of her credits revolve around Comedy Central. And Patti’s best friends, “Jheri” and “Basterd” are played by actors without Wikipedia entries, by the names of Siddharth Dhananjay and Mamoudou Athie. The most famous people involved with the project are Cathy Moriarty, who in this film plays Patti’s grandma Nana and forty years ago starred opposite Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, and one of the film’s five producers, Chris Columbus, of Home Alone, Harry Potter, etc. fame.

But the fact that you’ve never heard of them, does not mean you will not remember them long after the credits roll.

The movie revolves around the wistful Patti, a pretty large girl living in northern New Jersey with dreams of making it big as a rap star. Her mother Barb is a washed up singer herself, driven to alcoholism and searing invective against her daughter by life’s cruel twists and turns. Nana loves her, but is a chain-smoking, wheel-chair addled bitter woman that needs to be taken care of. Really her only friend for a while is Jheri, an Indian-American attendant at a drug store who, like Patti, likes to “spit” (i.e., spin rap lyrics impromptu) on his free time.

Patti’s one true friend, however, is herself. Despite being completely downtrodden and suffering misfortune after another, she believes in her own abilities, as clichéd as that (or as some of her self-help one-liners every morning in the mirror) may sound. Her resilience and her suffering make her the object of an obvious comparison—to being the white version of the character Precious—an analogy not lost on the filmmakers who quickly acknowledge it and move on during one of the movie’s more difficult scenes.

The film tells of Patti’s search for discovery, as she navigates poverty, destitution, her mother’s problems, the world’s rejections, and other difficulties. She keeps her head up and, as quickly as she yarns out poetic lines to the tune of rap, inspires you and makes you root for her.

In some ways, Patti Cake$ is very clearly the product of a freshman director’s touch (Geremy Jasper, again without the Wikipedia entry). The first quarter or so of the movie sort of ambles on from moment to moment, with expositional detail getting lost within itself. The filmmaker indulges too much of his own aesthetic impulses with repeated and extended dream sequences meant to show us how much Patti’s heart is in achieving her goals. Really, he had a truly breakout star (Macdonald) who conveyed it herself without the need for smokescreens, neon color, or hallucinatory settings.

Eventually, however, the film really takes off, and when it does, it is one of the true joy rides of the summer. Patti eventually manages to assemble a true band of misfits that include her hermit-like friend Basterd, a self-professed anarchist who believes in nothing and nobody. Together the unlikely quartet (stay tuned to find out who the fourth is) come up with songs that are as catchy as they are funny, and carry themselves with the sway and swagger that the world has never given them but that they believe—and know—they deserve. Adversity has made them stronger, has made them wanted more, not the other way around.

It is refreshing to see stories of the truly downtrodden once in a while. The movie does not come out of the Hollywood machine, of course, but kudos to Columbus and Fox Searchlight for taking a chance on a project like this. Those movies exist, to be sure (one won Best Picture at the Academy Awards last year), but they are few and far between and many times seem forced or rehearsed as sifted through the lens of the Hollywood glam filter.

Patti Cake$ is nothing if it isn’t honest. Much like another recent indie, Wind River, it is about people who have been left behind and forgotten by our vicious materialistic society. But, unlike that story, this is one of those who turn to art (perhaps not your kind of art, but I’ll be damned if you’re not spitting lyrics by the time the credits roll) to channel those experiences.

There are moments of the film that follow the predictable lines of other, bigger, artist-looking-for-soul films. Patti gets cold feet, and gets an inspiring pep talk from Nana. Patti and the group breakup. Patti has a big show and wonders whether her mother will show up to support her. You know the outcome of each of these mini-dramas.

But neither the fact that it is in some ways completely coloring within the lines nor the reality that this is a film made on truly a shoestring budget should change the ultimate experience. The combination of the heartfelt, bravura performance by Macdonald (and the entire cast, really), with the timeless story of pursuing your desires, with the talent exhibited in the tunes, will have you asking the baker to make you another as fast as he can.

Grade: A-

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About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film 'The Lost Weekend' is pure coincidence

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