|Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.|
In the film, Patricia Dombrowski - who is unaffectionately called "Dumbo" by folks in her working class New Jersey neighborhood and often ridiculed about her weight - wants to be a hip hop star, but is stuck in a low paying existence in her employment with a caterer. She also has to watch over her ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) and mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), an alcoholic with a set of pipes that once led her to dream of being a rock star. Now, however, Barb gets soused and performs karaoke at the local bar where Patti picks up a few shifts as a bartender and is often forced to hold her mother's hair while she pukes in the toilet.
Patti's best pal is a scrawny Indian fellow and pharmacist named Jhen (Siddharth Dhananjay), who shares in her dream of hip hop stardom and acts as a back-up vocalist to Patti when she freestyles - an early sequence involving this as the two sit on the hood of a car is among the film's most awkward moments. When Patti and Jhen meet another awkward misfit named Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a hardcore metal solo artist who makes Trent Reznor seem tame by comparison, at a talent night, something clicks and the trio formed a group known as PBNJ.
Despite the film being an enjoyable rags to riches story, there are some questions of authenticity that came to mind while I watched it. For starters, there are hardly any people of color to be found anywhere - other than Jhen - during the scenes in which Patti joins in freestyle competitions with neighborhood kids on the streets and a sequence during which she attends a local hip hop performance by a jerk on whom she has a crush. In fact, the only African American to be spotted anywhere is Basterd, who is portrayed as a tortured artist and is vehemently opposed to societal norms, but he then quickly gives in to the mainstream tastes that Patti is pushing and joins her group with seemingly no second thought on the matter. Patti and Jhen record their demo in a wooded shack that Basterd inhabits and could best be described as a "lair."
There's a scene later in the picture during which Patti ends up catering the home of a hip hop mogul whom she idolizes and she sneaks him a copy of her demo. The guy - known as OZ - acts like a complete ass to Patti, but he sort of has a valid point when he accuses her of cultural appropriation, which is similar to charges faced by Iggy Azalea when she embraced the lifestyle of hip hop, but turned a blind eye to its cultural and political implications.
Patti is a more sensitive soul - certainly more so than Azalea or her mother, who tells her to "act her race" - but it seems as if she only interacts with black people when she needs to cut a record in a studio or perform at the film's talent search finale, where the audience goes from booing her - and the film seems to indicate that this occurs since she is a white girl in a fur coat - to cheering her within seconds once she starts performing.
On the other hand, Patti's ridicule at the hands of young men in her community and her bitter mother also make us want to root for her. It also helps that Macdonald's performance is such a good one - she's at once confident and vulnerable - and this helps to glide past some of the picture's less effective attributes. So, while "Patti Cake$" isn't quite the Sundance sensation as it was purported to be, it's a likable, well acted and plucky character study.