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Thousands of miles away from La La Land sits Patti Cake$, Geremy Jaspers debut feature film about a 23-year-old Bayonne, New Jersey, rapper named Patricia Dombrowski (newcomer Danielle Macdonald) and her dream of making it bigand out of her depressing hometown.
The film screened this week at SXSW, was one of the most buzzed-about out of Sundance, and picked up a $10.5 million deal with Fox Searchlight. Macdonald is a big part of it; she gives every scene light. Often shot up close, her eyes and hair take on a more vivid tone. We see her reactions to being called Dumbo and enduring humiliating experiences at work in full frame. Pattis friend Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay) works at the pharmacy and encourages her when she gets self-conscious about her talent or looks. They go by the name Thick and Thin, a testament to their physical appearance and friendship. She raps to him via a security camera when we first meet him; a clever way of documenting her talents for posterity.
Metal musician Basterd (The Get Downs Mamoudou Athie) is her mirror; hes an anarchist, lives in the woods, and doesnt speak much. The three of them form a band of outsiders and eventually record a demo, and one of the most memorable scenes includes Patti taking her ailing grandmother (played by Cathy Moriarty) through a graveyards Gates of Hell to embark on a journey of musical and iconographical exploration.
Iconography is a big thread in the film, from her car to the posters on her wall; as we see from Jaspers music-video opening, Patti is obsessed with one rapper-mogul in particular. The film would have been better served if itd spent less time on this tenuous relationshipwe never discover why exactly she admires himbut it works as a plot device to open Pattis worldview a bit.
Pattis relationship with her mom is interesting but feels like a half-sketch. Barb (played by tremendous singer Bridget Everett) is chasing her past in ways that embarrass and frustrate her daughter, and Everett does an admirable job of swinging between pitiful and present. They have a few heavy exchanges (she tells Patti to act her race), but theres not much of a sketch of what Barbs like outside of the home she shares with her daughter, or the bar she frequents (where her daughter works), and the storyline props itself on a few cliches about single-mother-daughter relationships.
There are a few improbable leaps in terms of Pattis successthe internet and social media play no part; she gives a physical copy of a CD to the right person, a DJ played by MC Lyte. But the raps (written by Jasper) are pretty solid, if not particularly memorable. Theres no City of Stars-size hit here, but the soundtrack does feature Bikini Kills Double Dare Ya, so it balances out. The best scenes feature Patti as the subject, whether shes dreaming or facing down reality. Patti Cake$ just feels stuck between being a music video and a fully realized film.