2017 – USA
Director: Geremy Jasper
Starring: Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, Cathy Moriarty, McCaul Lombardi, Mamoudou Athie, Siddharth Dhananjay
Words: Rhiannon Topham
A story chronicling the underrepresented world of women in music? Yes please.
To most people, the eponymous star of Patti Cake$ is New Jerseyite Patricia ‘Dumbo’ Dombrowski, whose fluorescent dreams as a disciple of her musical hero O-Z fuel her true calling in life – success on the rap scene as Killa P.
Turning the camera away from music videos and commercials to his first feature film, writer-director Geremy Jasper tells a touching tale of aspiration overcoming circumstance.
Patti (played superbly by breakout star Danielle Macdonald) is stuck in a rut. At 23, she feels she “ain’t done sh*t”; her life is a perpetual cycle of work to pay off her beloved Nana’s medical bills, coping with her mother who seems to have raised Patti in a shadow of bitterness because she passed up the opportunity of a singing career while pregnant with her for the displeasures of married life, and so she now coerces Patti to entertain her mild alcoholism because “blood is thicker than Jäger”.
To find solace from this, Patti spends her spare time filling reams of paper with rap lyrics that are only performed on the bonnet of her dilapidated Cadillac to her loyal best friend, Hareesh a.k.a. Jheri. She is constantly ridiculed by her peers and taunted for her appearance, but is most discouraged by her mother, who believes that as a white, overweight young woman from a downbeat suburbia, Patti just doesn’t fit the profile of a musician, nevermind a rapper.
This vilified, unsatisfactory life is what fuels Patti’s crude and intimate lyrics, which her Nana describes as “sick”, as does Jheri but in a very different sense. Patti is better at articulating her opinions when pushed unwillingly into a car park rap battle than almost every idiot in her small town could imagine. Her thoughts are poetry, there’s intense artistry in her soul. Her mother may bark that Patti ought to act her race, but Patti’s progressive outlook on life and fierce self-regard transcend the mundanity that is expected of her.
Contrary to her seemingly natural talent for spitting bars, Danielle Macdonald had never rapped prior to landing the leading role. Proving she was the perfect choice for the character, Macdonald’s impressive commitment to Patti adds a degree of authenticity to a performance so charismatic you almost begin to believe she is Patti, that this is a film accounting the life of a real person and not a fictitious one.
Patti Cake$ does, to a certain extent, rely on some familiar markers of a lower-class underdog story: the doubtful parent holding their tortured child genius back; the ailing elderly family member who sees the true power of their talents; an encounter with the idol who turns out to be a terrible person which disheartens but ultimately motivates the protagonist to succeed; an unlikely new friendship which leads to romance.
Patti’s story may have been written in the spirit of a cliché, and feature an ending some may predict, but this is an engaging story – one that speaks to anyone who’s felt like their best isn’t good enough.