While Patti Cake$ is not as bombastic as its opening moments forecast it to be, it’s ultimately the restraint exercised by first-time filmmaker Geremy Jasper which elevates the film into something larger than the sum of its parts. This is appropriate in a tale about an underdog wannabe rapper. What is a dream but a grand sum of seemingly inconsequential parts? And what is a dreamer but someone who can see that sum from the very beginning?
Killa P aka Patti Cake$ aka Patricia ‘Dumbo’ Dumbrowski (Danielle Macdonald) is one of those dreamers. By day she bartends at a townie dive so she can pay her grandmother’s hospital bills. By night she dodges her alcoholic mother so she can spit rhymes with her friends and look at the big city skyline from across the Hudson river. She hopes that one day she can escape New Jersey to live the big life like her idol, rap superstar O-Z, but for now she’s spinning her wheels, sitting on a bed of talent that she has nary an opportunity to display.
Whenever she’s down, it’s her pharmacist/hypeman friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay, in his debut) who pushes her to keep the dream alive. When the duo happens across Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a morose noise rocker who wants to live off the grid, a hip hop act is born. And when Nana (Cathy Moriarty) proves herself a reluctant master of the gravelly hook, the trio becomes a quartet and they decide to give this music game their best shot.
They call themselves PBNJ, and while this hokey anagram of their initials seems amateurish, it’s touches like this which help give Patti Cake$ the reality check that many underdog movies lack. PBNJ isn’t supposed to be the coolest undiscovered hip-hop act the world has ever seen, but rather a ragtag group of talented musicians unabashedly doing their best in a world where they feel a bit like tourists. It shows in the music too. The songs, all penned by Jasper, aren’t the highly produced, Oscar-worthy tunes from 8 Mile or Hustle & Flow, and it’s their rough genuineness that makes them feel as if they came from the brain of Patti herself.
At the post-film Q&A I asked Jasper how he managed to create such full, lovable characters without anything by way of expository dialogue or excessive monologuing, and he chalked it up to the confluence of two factors:
1. The actors.
2. Overwriting and then cutting away the fat.
It’s almost magical how easy it is to care not just about the focal characters, but even the ones on the fringes of the narrative. And it’s not like everyone is altruistic or noble. In fact, a few of them could even be described as pathetic. Yet nobody is painted as one way or another so much as they are shown to be humans trying to define themselves within their environment. For the creatives amongst us, its electrifying to see someone’s circumstances manifest into a pure expression, just as its heartbreaking to see them framed as a limitation.
Case in point, both Patti and her mother use music to understand their world, and one of the many thematic threads that Patti Cake$ pulls is an exploration of how the two women, using two different genres of music, are able to reckon with their environment, their insecurities, and ultimately their strengths, all the while trying to understand one another. While Patti Cake$ is certainly an indie 8 Mile riff, I’d say that these characters feel more real (which is admittedly easier when the lead isn’t already a music superstar). Sure, they aren’t as explosive and the stakes are much lower, but that’s what brings them down to earth. I’m not even remotely good at creating music, but after watching Patti Cake$ it suddenly felt like something I could do.
I checked. I still can’t.
I can still play ‘Blister in the Sun’ though. And ‘Wonderwall’ if you give me a capo.
God-willing, Danielle Macdonald will emerge from Patti Cake$ a star. Patti has all the makings of a tragic character, but Macdonald transcends this by imbuing her with just the right mix of strength and doubt to make her story compelling and real. There are very few movies which show a young woman going from fake-it-to-make-it to a state of legitimate self-love, and Macdonald does a bang up job of doing so without leaning into pandering or “feminism as a brand.” Nobody on the planet could have played Patti quite like this. She’s that good. This is one of the purest examples of script/talent symbiosis.
The complete lack of cynicism at the heart of Patti Cake$ helps to smooth some of the film’s rougher edges while also making Patti’s journey one not of taking on the world and topping the charts, but of creating something real out of nothing at all. It’s often said that those who get into the arts for money are rarely successful financially or creatively, but those who do it out of passion have a better chance of achieving either or both. Patti Cake$ is a film that celebrates creativity, while reminding us that following our passions is the greatest journey we can take.
Patti Cake$ opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.