Filmfest DC Review: Danielle MacDonald Spits Fire In Crowd-Pleasing 'Patti Cake$'

There were two hip-hop dramas that played at Sundance earlier this year. One was the Roxanne Shante biopic Roxanne Roxanne, which I felt was somewhat disappointing. The other was Patti Cake$, which I skipped and turned out to be one of the most popular surprise picks of the festival. I chose Roxanne Roxanne because I grew up listening to Shante. But if I'm honest, it's also because the other movie, which follows an overweight white girl from Jersey with dreams of becoming a rapper, looked like a bunch of pandering nonsense.

I chose poorly.

Patti Cake$ is one of the most purely enjoyable movies about hip-hop that I've seen. Does it pander? Absolutely. Does it stick to the 8 Mile formula like an emcee following the boom bap and the kick snare? You darn right it does, but the rags to rap glory story it tells is made special, if not transcendent, by the electric lead performance by Danielle MacDonald. For many she will be a newcomer, and certainly this will be her breakout role into even bigger things. She's been around for a little while, appearing at Sundance a few years in The East, but here the spotlight is all hers. She grabs the mic and commands the stage like Latifah in her prime. This kid is a star.

She plays 23-year-old Patricia aka "Dumbo" to the local wannabe rappers, but affectionately known as Patti Cakes to her ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) and best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), the latter who is sorta like her hype man. Patti fights to break free from her depressing daily routine of caring for her grandmother, and avoiding the pitfalls that befell her mother (Bridget Everett), a singing talent waylaid by personal demons and poor decisions with men. In-between working at a crappy bar and a side gig at a catering company, Patti drops the sickest lyrics in Jersey to anybody who'll listen. Her dream is for the sickest rapper in town, OZ, to hear her stuff and sign her to a record deal.

There's plenty of hustle to go along with the flow writer/director Geremy Jasper is droppin' on us. While we're sold on the "hometown girl makes rap legend" story, there's also a convincing and somewhat surprising love story that emerges between Patti and the enigmatic  Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie), a mostly-silent musical savant who makes Ol' Dirty Bastard seem normal. We also come to appreciate Everett's performance as Patti's mom, who serves as a walking "caution sign" if she ever were to give in to the hopelessness of her surroundings.

But we can't help but gravitate to Patti's journey because she so different than just about any protagonist in this particular genre. Jasper based the film in part on his own childhood and the hip-hop he loved, and it's clear where his inspirations lay. Patti follows in the path of strong, tough, fearless female rappers who forged their own path regardless of the naysayers. And Jasper was even able to get one to appear in the film, the great MC Lyte, who plays a brief but integral role. If only we could've had a Patti Cake$/MC Lyte battle, that might've been epic.  Maybe for the Blu-Ray special features?  Where the needle skips is when Jasper tries to include a few indie quirks to go along with Patti's hard scrabble home life. While it's funny to have grandma join Pattis' group, known as PBNJ, and even drop a killer sample on their title track, it feels inauthentic compared to the grittier stuff.

Everything is held together by Jasper's authentic production and script, along with MacDonald's high-energy performance.  There's a lot made of Patti being a white girl trying to make it in a black man's world, and sure some viewers will scoff at the idea. But isn't that line of thinking incredibly old fashioned when we're living in a world that has K$sha and Pitbull in it? Patti is setting herself on a course to be better than the greats; at no point can we ever say she's slackin' off. Her raps are few, and Jasper appropriately builds to each verse so that we're on pins and needles waiting for it. When an entire packed house of doubters pumps their fists in the air at Patti's razor sharp rhymes, we're right there with them ready to buy the CD at the door.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Filmfest DC runs through April 30th.