As the star of Patti Cake$, Australian newcomer Danielle Macdonald was the find at this year Sundance Film Festival. Now everyone gets to see what all the fuss is about. She plays Patricia Dombrowski, a 23-year-old plus-sized New Jersey bartender dissed as "Dumbo" by local (dim)wits. No matter. In her fantasies, Patti, a.k.a. Patti Cake$, is a white gangsta rapper whose talent fills stadiums. In reality, she lives in a dump with boozy mom Barb, superbly played by cabaret revolutionary Bridget Everett, and her grandmother Nana (Cathy Moriarty), a sulking bad mood confined to a wheelchair.
We've seen this kind of movie before, lots of times, but music-video director Geremy Jasper, in an uneven but from-the-heart feature debut, spins enough variations on the theme to keep things percolating. And Macdonald is the real thing, a live-wire actress who can deliver a rap or express an emotion with a bracing absence of bullshit. Sadly, the movie grows increasingly contrived, especially when Patti forms a group with pharmacist buddy Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), a black anarchist called Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie) and cranky Nana. Can Patti sell this mix to local rap sensation O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah) and find success and a true sense of pride? Can underdog movies sample themselves to infinity and beyond?
The answer to both is in the affirmative. "The bigger the girl/The deeper the pain," raps Patti in one of the many on-the-nose lyrics provided by Jasper. Macdonald sells it, the predictable and the profane, as if her life depended on it. The life of the movie sure as hell does. Staring in the mirror, our heroine says of herself, "you're a boss bitch." Only a fool would argue.