Combustible Celluloid
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With: Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, Siddharth Dhananjay, Mamoudou Athie, Cathy Moriarty, McCaul Lombardi, Patrick Brana
Written by: Geremy Jasper
Directed by: Geremy Jasper
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, crude sexual references, some drug use and a brief nude image
Running Time: 108
Date: 08/18/2017

Patti Cake$ (2017)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Rap Goddess

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Geremy Jasper's Patti Cake$ was the hit of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, scooping up a $9.5 million deal while entertaining the crowds. Now that it's out in theaters, if it seems a bit conventional in its structure, the conventional stuff works like gangbusters and, at the same time, it has an edginess in its darker corners that may not seem evident at first.

The story is a simple "dreaming of the big time" one. Patti (Danielle Macdonald) is a talented New Jersey rapper who practices in parking lots with her best pal, Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). He has a more R&B sensibility (he sings the chorus parts). Patti, who goes by "Killa P" is on the large side and is cursed with the last name Dombrowski, which prompts the nickname "Dumbo." She works at a bar, where her burnt-out singer mother Barb (Bridget Everett) drinks up the profits with healthy shots before taking the stage to warble some old Heart hits. Barb constantly reminds Patti that she, Barb, might have had a career if she hadn't found herself pregnant.

Patti is able to kill at street rap battles, but the boys don't like losing to her, and she remains an outcast. One night, at an open mike, she sees a performance by the scary-looking Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie), who screams into the mike and then leaves. Patti follows him to a shack behind a graveyard -- going, of course, through a graffiti-colored tunnel to get there -- and enlists him to be in their "band." Her sickly old Nana (Cathy Moriarty, playing older than she really is) happens to be there, too, and they all record an impromptu demo called "PBNJ." This sequence is such fun, the stuff of bizarre fairy tales.

From there, the group gets their first gig at a strip club, and Patti finds the opportunity and courage to drop her demo with her hero, rapper OZ (Sahr Ngaujah), with fairly predictable results -- although OZ does provide a necessary turning point for Patti's character. The movie winds up with Patti trying to become more true to her art and to herself, rather than copying the swaggering, bragging lyrics of other rappers, and her choice is also somewhat easy to foresee, but the energy and juice with which this is all portrayed is hard to resist.

It comes down mostly to the performance by Macdonald. Let's mention briefly that she is not a rapper and not from Brooklyn, and she spent months learning all the technical stuff she needed for this role. But aside from that, she's very simply a force of nature, running on reserve strength after life pummels her Patti down from every which way. She's a classic movie hero, and her looks and her choice of music do nothing to kill her universal appeal. It's a great performance, and could be a star-making one, if Hollywood had the guts to cast women that are not also cut out for the Victoria's Secret catalog.

For his part, director Geremy Jasper comes from music videos (he was also in a band) and from many hours absorbing Federico Fellini movies. Some of that Fellini stuff makes it here, especially in a sequence in which Patti simply floats up off the ground while lost in her music, or in her dreams wherein OZ introduces her to adoring fans. Jasper has done a very clean job of folding in the bizarre, unreal stuff with a more realistic approach of street-level city life. Everything fits very nicely.

Finally, there are the songs, which were written by Jasper and performed astoundingly by Macdonald. I am a hip-hop fan and have been since the 1980s (though I was in the closet about it for a long time), and I can tell you that this is a soundtrack I would rush out to buy and listen to again. If you're not a hip-hop fan, then I don't know what to say, other than the assertion that Patti Cake$ could convert you.

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