Stories about those for whom music – and rap/hip-hop in particular – have proven an escape from economic and social marginalisation are plentiful and several have already been committed to celluloid via real life re-enactments of the lives of performers such as Eminem (8 Mile), NWA (Straight Outta Compton) and 50 Cent (Get Rich or Die Tryin’). Whilst this first ever feature from writer/director Geremy Jasper follows a very similar narrative trajectory as these other films, it is a significant point of difference that the rapper at the centre of the story is Patricia Dombrowski (aka Patti Cakes), a young, overweight white woman struggling to be taken seriously in what is undeniably the most misogynistic of all music genres. Although this is a fictional story, there seems little doubt that the treatment dished out to Patti is reflective of the struggles women face in trying to break through the wall of machismo that serves to subjugate female voices. In one scene, when Patti upstages a posturing pretender in an impromptu rap battle, she is dismissed with a head butt and a tirade of vitriolic abuse.
Played with tremendous gusto by Australian actress Danielle Macdonald, Patti is a hard working and thoroughly likeable young woman who lives in New Jersey with her deadbeat mother Barb (Bridgett Everett) and ailing grandmother (an aged-up Catherine Moriarty). Once on the cusp of her own success as a singer, Barb has now resigned herself to a routine of drunken nights and a struggle to stay one step ahead of debtors. As she necessarily takes on more responsibility in the wake of Barb’s inability to make ends meet, Patti’s rhymes become her only respite from what is an otherwise dismal existence. Trying to have her voice heard (both literally and figuratively), Patti and her sidekick Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) team up with Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a mysterious and unconventional musician, to produce an album under the somewhat naff moniker of PBNJ. However, in the face of myriad setbacks, Patti struggles under the weight of pressure in trying to balance her work and home responsibilities with her dreams of success. Far from the romanticised renderings of New Jersey that the likes of Bruce Springsteen have invoked in song, Jasper paints New York’s nearest neighbour as a wasteland of decay and despair.
Macdonald certainly doesn’t wilt under the pressure of taking on the lead in her first feature film role, delivering a wonderfully brazen performance as Patti (who performs as Killa P), handling the determination, vulnerability and despair of her character with equal aplomb. However, pretty much every other character is burdened by cliché, a lack of nuance and, with the exception of Moriarty (Raging Bull, Cop Land), unconvincing performances. Everett struggles to make Barb believable and Jheri is an amalgam of various middle-eastern stereotypes, while a late-in-the-piece character transformation comes across as an exercise in playing it safe rather than any narrative necessity.
Patti is a victim of the failings of others and her biggest challenge lies in convincing herself that she is good enough to secure a future for herself that offers more than tending bar in a low-rent establishment or waiting on guests at fancy parties. Whilst Patti is desperate to secure the attention of her rap hero O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), it is a fellow female rapper who ultimately provides her with an opportunity to showcase her talents and, unlike the true life tales that are the basis of other films of this type, we bring no pre-existing knowledge about the trajectory of the characters fortunes to this story, and Jasper doesn’t offer any definitive answers with regard to whether Patti reaches a level of success that enables her to break free from the shackles of social disadvantage. Despite its shortcomings, there is a lot to like about Patti Cakes, not the least of which is a breakout performance from another Australian seemingly on the cusp of big things in Hollywood.