Ever since January, when this independent film about a struggling rap singer premiered at Sundance – ‘indie’ works tend to shine there – it’s been the talk of the industry. It was taken up by the distributor Fox Searchlight and the rest is history.
Not being a great lover of rap music – I’ve never seen it as much more than doggerel spoken in a frantic monotone – I went to it with some misgivings.
The plot is old hat. Young girl from the wrong side of the tracks argues with mother, who used to be a singer herself back in the day. They have money problems. Haven’t we been here before? More than once?
There’s also the problem of vulgarity. It’s part and parcel of rap music. I mean vulgarity that’s unnecessary and ubiquitous.
So how does the film work then? Probably because of its energy, its consummate belief in itself. Almost without trying it wins you over. It crawls out of the genre contours that threaten to engulf it time and again. Its wit and humour save it every time it seems to be running into the brick walls of convention.
23-year-old New Jersey girl Patti Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) looks to be going nowhere in life. She lives with her alcoholic mother Barbara (Bridget Everett) in grim circumstances. Both of them are overweight. Barbara’s mother (Nana) is also in poor health.
Things don’t look very promising for the hip-hop wannabe but with the help of Siddharth Dhananjay and Mamoudou Athie – an ebullient friend and mysterious sound mixer – she somehow manages to get her career out of neutral.
The charm of the piece isn’t obvious. These are rough diamonds struggling against many types of odds. At first Barbara isn’t supportive. She doesn’t like rap and seems obsessed by money. Broken by life herself, we sense a touch of ‘the green-eyed monster’ in her feelings about Patti. Things look headed for ruin more than once.
Written and directed by an unknown (Geremy Jasper) and featuring another unknown in the lead role – Macdonald is an Australian actress who’d never sung rap before – this looked for all the world like one of those films that might play a week or two in some fringe cinema and then disappear without trace. It seemed to have about as much chance of success as Patti’s singing career. But word of mouth has made it into something of a cult film.
It’s a slow burner with a hypnotic appeal. It doesn’t have a fairytale ending which is also refreshing. Patti’s climb to the top isn’t any more dramatic than her improving relationship with her mother. Jasper doesn’t patronise us with rags-to-riches clichés. And Cathy Moriarty – who made her debut in Raging Bull all those years ago – is great as Nana.
At the end of the day I thought ‘Barb’ had a much better voice than her daughter but today’s youth would probably shoot me for saying that.