Director: Geremy Jasper
Cast: Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, Siddharth Dhananjay, Mamoudou Athie, Cathy Moriarty, McCaul Lombardi, Patrick Brana, MC Lyte, Sahr Ngaujah
MPAA Rating: (for language throughout, crude sexual references, some drug use and a brief nude image)
Running Time: 1:48
Release Date: 8/18/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 17, 2017
Nobody would expect that Patti (Danielle Macdonald)—a white woman of 23, of a certain size, and from New Jersey—would be capable of making it as a professional rapper. Nobody does, except for Patti herself, obviously, and even her own certainty comes into question in Patti Cake$. It's a standard formula here, of an underdog who's just scrappy and driven enough to make something of herself. One who knows this type of story will be able to figure out just about every scene that happens here. If the film were just about the story, that would be a matter for concern. It's not, though.
No, writer/director Geremy Jasper (making his feature film debut) has made a warm, sympathetic film about outcasts, their desire to fit in, and their abilities to use the qualities that made them outcasts to their advantage. The right kind of success, Jasper seems to be saying, is not about fitting in. It's about standing out from the crowd.
Patti definitely does. The crew that she assembles and the family with which she's both blessed and stuck do, as well. She has been an outsider for most of her life—at least since junior high school, when the other kids started calling her "Dumbo" on account of her weight. The nickname stuck, and Patti still gets it, from people looking her in the face and from random people who pass her while driving.
She's created new aliases for herself: "Killa P" and "Patti Cake$." They haven't stuck. Patti hopes they will when she becomes famous and gets out of Jersey. The bright lights of New York City, just over the bridge, are just in reach. In one shot, she holds her hand out toward the skyline, measuring the distant skyscrapers with two fingers. It's so close from this perspective. Sitting on the hood of her car, though, with a dead-end job and no record deals or even performance opportunities in sight, you can't even see the lights anymore.
From this point of view, all of it is a dream. Patti has actual dreams of her fame, getting on stage—after being introduced by her hero O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), a Jersey guy who made it big, runs a rap empire, and is worshipped by his fans—and stepping out into the crowd, walking across their upraised hands.
They disappear upon waking—to a phone call from a debt collector. Listening to O-Z's music while walking down the street, she has a similar experience, rising above the ground—until someone honks at her and calls her that cruel name. At her bartending job, she jots down rhymes in between pouring drinks for customers who can't help but poke fun at her. Her mother Barb (Bridget Everett) used to sing in a band in the 1980s, but even she thinks her daughter's dream is a joke. Only Patti's grandmother Nana (Cathy Moriarty) gives the young woman any encouragement.
The story follows Patti as she puts together a crew, her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), who works at a local drug store, and Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), who lives in a shack behind a cemetery and calls himself the Anti-Christ. Everyone in this town wants to escape it, and no one is close to being able to do so. One guy works at his father's pizza shop, selling drugs on the side while doing some gigs with his band. Patti ends up juggling two jobs, while still trying to find the time to put together a demo album with Jheri, Basterd, and, because grandma needs help getting places, Nana.
A lot of whatever success Patti achieves comes from chance, whether it's meeting Basterd, who owns some recording equipment (and not much else), at a local club or running into a local radio DJ, who has to supplement her income with parties, at a Bar Mitzvah that Patti helps to cater in her second job. More of it, though, comes from her willingness to put herself out there, despite her reservations. She takes on the guy from the pizza shop in a rap battle (and gets a bloody nose for her victory) and actually approaches these people with what she has to offer. Jasper's view of success here is pragmatic. It's not enough to be lucky. It's not enough to have talent and to do the work. It's a difficult combination of the two, and that reality lends some genuine tension to Patti's struggle.
All of this effort seems right, if condensed and plugged into a formulaic story (Jasper also glosses over the racial component of the story, with one character dismissing her as a "culture vulture" and Barb's repeated claims that rap isn't "real music"). Much of the credit belongs to Macdonald, an Australian actress whose nationality we would never guess from her performance. She has the dialect down pat, and the mixture of Patti's go-getter attitude and constant doubt makes her an instantly likeable protagonist. There are a few original songs here, which are catchy enough, but the important thing is that Jasper lets us see the fun and work of putting one of them together.
There's nothing new here, but the film has its own energy, founded on its eclectic group of characters, its real-enough depiction of the economic struggle of following one's dream, and its practical view that success comes both slowly and in increments. As one might expect, Patti Cake$ ends with a victory of sorts. It's a minor one, but considering everything that has come before it, it's the only one that matters.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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