Stuck leading a hopeless life in dreary New Jersey, aspiring rap artist Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald), a.k.a. 'Killer P' a.k.a. 'Patti Cake$', dreams of making it big alongside best friend and fellow hip-hop wannabe Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). Her mom Barb (Bridget Everett), who knows a thing or two about faded dreams, does not believe she has a chance and leans on Patti to take care of her invalid Nana (Cathy Moriarty) whose costly medical care is growing increasingly hard to manage. Taunted, abused and body-shamed by brainless neighbourhood thugs, Patti stays defiant, clinging to her goals even after Barb forces her to work a second job to help pay the bills. But when Patti runs into Bastard the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie), a comically monosyllabic black death metal/hip-hop fusion artist, she sees a chance to make both their dreams a reality.
Movies about white hip-hop artists can be problematic (yes, Eminem fans, even 8 Mile (2002)), beset by accusations of inauthenticity or cultural appropriation. Writer-director Geremy Jasper's feature debut just about sidesteps the flak, largely on the strength of a powerhouse performance from Australian actress Danielle Macdonald, though also because the film presents Patti as an authentic underdog. Someone that credibly embodies that core notion of hip-hop as an avenue for transforming adversity into escape. Without sliding into excessive melodrama Jasper crafts a suitably oppressive environment from which our blue collar hip-hop heroine yearns to flee. Rather than crack houses and drive-bys, Patti's challenges are fellow wannabe rappers: snarky, shirtless fat-shaming white boy wannabe gangstas like Danny (McCaul Lombardi), her tragically unrequited lust object who cruelly nicknames her Dumbo and pays back his destruction in a rap battle with a brutal headbutt to the face.
Along with financial instability and social mockery, Patti's biggest adversary is her own mother. Though Macdonald drew the lion's share of justified critical praise, comedian and cabaret performer Bridget Everett is also excellent. Treading the line between self-esteem shredding foe and vulnerable, sympathetic figure in her own right, Barb stands as both obstacle and cautionary warning for Patti: a failed rock star reduced to crooning karaoke covers in a dive bar and bullying her daughter for free drinks. If Patti Cake$ ultimately spins a familiar tale of an underdog hustling their way to the top it is at least distinguished by an abundance of heart and cast of endearingly offbeat characters. From Siddharth Dhananjay's pharmacist-by-day authentically cheesy Bhangra-styled hustler by night, Mamoudou Athie's painfully shy but articulate and sad blue-eyed black goth to a welcome return from Cathy Moriarty as the ailing but still sassy Nana whose raspy tones the crew sample for their debut record. To her bemusement ("Listen to me... f***ing Streisand").
The film does strike an awkward note when Patti gets shot down by her hip-hop idol O-Z (Sahr Ngaugh) who raises some valid criticisms. After which it becomes a story about a white kid driven to prove her worth amidst an oppressive black milieu, something with which a significant number may take issue. Jasper also peppers the film with hip-hop video fantasy sequences that, while amusing at first, wear out their welcome. Despite foregrounding a refreshingly unconventional heroine this is not the film to dissect the dissect the misogyny underlining rap culture. Yet to its credit a sequence showcasing the crew's first live performance succeeds in poignantly puncturing their fantasy vision of the hip-hop lifestyle exposing the dismal reality of a grotty strip club, flabby pole dancers and grim-faced zombie-like patrons. Even so Patti Cake$ is governed foremost by an old-fashioned, surprisingly sincere belief in the transformative power of music building to a feelgood finale that in all honesty brings tears to the eyes. Jasper, who exhibits an obvious solid grasp of the milieu, also composed the rousing music which sounds credible - at least to these clueless ears. It is also worth repeating that Macdonald is outstanding in the title role, by turns exuberant, gleefully vulgar, soulful and vulnerable.