As surprising as it may seem, the feel good movie of the summer just might be a limited release indie film titled Patti Cake$. Star Danielle MacDonald portrays Patricia Dombrowski, better known in her neighborhood as Dumbo. It’s a nickname the heavy-set 23-year old picked up in junior high thanks to school bullies. But Patti yearns to be known instead by the moniker “Killa P.” Her daydreams revolve around making it big as a rapper under the tutelage of her idol OZ, a Jay-Z type figure whose music Patti uses to escape from her reality. In an early scene Patti puts in her ear buds as she leaves her house, and while she walks down her working class street we see her literally levitate, each step taking her further off the ground. It’s a simple but clever visual trick to illustrate the transformative power of music. Rap allows Patti to transport herself out of her humdrum existence as a bartender in a non-descript, blue collar Jersey suburb. She is expected to support her alcoholic mother, Barb, and her wheelchair-bound grandmother on her meager salary. We hear the messages left by medical bill collectors looking for payment for charges that are clearly for her grandmother’s treatment.
Patti’s only true joy comes when she is spitting, or rapping, with her best friend Jheri (played by Siddharth Dhananjay in his film debut). The pair dream of recording their tracks as a duo, with Jheri singing and Patti rapping. Of the two, Patti is the one with the clear talent. She uses her raps as a form of therapeutic poetry. It allows her to front with a self-confidence she normally lacks. The film follows the duo’s quest to record their music, find gigs, and somehow get discovered. Along the way they meet up with a metal/goth/rapper/musician who calls himself “Basterd” and is even more of an outcast than Patti. After some negotiations, Basterd joins Patti and Jheri, and the group “PB&J” is born.
If you’re looking for a quick, happy ending, you won’t find it with this movie. It’s not THAT kind of “feel good” movie. It’s more of a feel bad, feel really bad, feel worse, and then feel better film. Patti deals with local haters, misogynistic wannabes, and her mother’s alcoholism. Patti’s “Nana” is the only positive, supportive force in her life, outside of Jheri. The relationship between Patti and her mom is an adept exploration of a troubled mother-daughter relationship. Barb was once an aspiring musician of her own. Her band “Barb Wire” played hair metal anthems and had interest from major record labels until Barb got pregnant and was coerced into leaving music behind by Patti’s deadbeat dad (who split soon after she was born). Barb uses alcohol to deaden her disappointment and heighten her cynicism. Her years of bad decisions weigh heavily on her, and she is jealous of Patti, who still has a passion for music.
The film skirts along the borders of cultural appropriation, but the script deals with the issue head on…eventually. As a result of that, we see Patti’s raps evolve over the course of the film. To talk in more detail about this might be too much of a spoiler, but artistic authenticity is a key. What could have been a problematic representation issue actually becomes a strength of the storytelling.
Patti Cake$ isn’t a perfect film. Some of the plot twists seem a little too far-fetched to be realistic. And there are predictable elements. But the acting is strong, considering the lack of film acting experience of much of the cast (with the exception of Cathy Moriarty as Nana). The soundtrack is catchy and propels the film forward. And Danielle Macdonald is strangely convincing as a white, Jersey-girl rapper, despite being an Australian actress who learned to rap for the film. Writer-director Geremy Jasper taps into an energy that is totally satisfying, if not totally ground-breaking. But the movie is likely to leave you glad you invested a couple hours in Patti’s tale.
Patti Cake$ is currently playing in select theaters across the country.
Patti Cakes$: 8/10