Sports films are tough to make. They generally follow a scrappy team (or person) fighting to overcome challenges, suffering a disappointing blow in the second act, and then coming back to conquer in the third—either by beating everyone or being recognized as an equal. It’s hard to deviate from that structure, which is why a good sports film doesn’t focus on the plot so much as the characters.
Why am I talking about sports films in a review of Patti Cake$, a movie about a white girl trying to rap? Well, what I would consider a subset of the sports film is the music film. Think 8 Mile or Sing Street. It’s not a contest in the sports sense, but it is a contest in regards to perseverance and talent. Patti Cake$ falls squarely into this category.
The Fox Searchlight Pictures film follows a young 20-something New Jersey girl with a gift for rhyme who is trying to figure out her path in life; her path could very well be rap music, and the story follows the patterns as outlined above. Patti is not your typical rapper—she’s white, heavyset, and from Jersey—and it’s a good underdog story. So, if the plot is predictable, how are the characters? The answer is entertaining and enjoyable. There’s some definite pathos in the relationship between would-be rapper Patti and her mother, Barb. The protagonist also contends with people constantly telling her no, relying on her friends Jheri and Antichrist Bastard to help support and nurture her.
The acting is overall good, and when you realize that Danielle MacDonald is Australian, it is even more impressive to hear her with a Jersey accent and rapping. Antichrist Bastard (Mamoudou Athie) and Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) both play against stereotype in their roles as a quiet black man into industrial music and an Indian hype man, respectively, and those interactions are worth seeing. Some of Patti’s scenes with her mother don’t quite hit the emotional center for me and honestly felt cringeworthy, but the rest of the audience seemed to enjoy them, so I’ll chalk that up to personal subjectivity. The strongest relationship in the film, though, ends up being between Patti and her Nana (Cathy Moriarty), and all those moments are extremely well done and emotionally gripping. There’s the occasional flight of fancy as Patti dreams of an escape from her crushing life, and they do interject a nice respite from the grim reality of her life.
Patti Cake$ is an enjoyable film that tries to give a voice to lesser-seen characters and deals with topics from imposter syndrome and perseverance to race and poverty. Although it doesn’t quite hit a home run, it does score a solid double and makes a strong addition to the music subset of “sports” films.