Patti Cake$ is the left-field, feel-good, underdog story of late-summer. Patricia Dombrowski, aka Killa-P, aka Patti Cake$, aka (by her enemies) Dumbo Dombrowski is a loveable loser stuck in Nowheresville, New Jersey. She dreams of making it big as a rapper in PBNJ, the group she starts with her only friend, Jheri, a drug store clerk and rap fanatic. Her dreams seem especially unlikely due to her race, her weight, her struggles to care for her alcoholic mom, and ailing nana by working two jobs that she could lose at any second. Then, one day she follows enigmatic musician and fellow loser known as Basterd to his shack in the woods and somehow convinces him to help her and Jheri cut a demo.
Let me get this out of the way: Patti Cake$ has absolutely nothing new in it. It is an outsider, underdog, ugly duckling, get-me-out-of-this-town, kids parenting the parents, missing father figures, music is my life and only ticket out, We Are The Best meets Bad News Bears meets 8 Mile story. We’ve seen this before, perhaps since ancient times, hundreds of times over and over…but I loved it.
The themes and premise of the film are not what makes Patti Cake$ special. What does is its realism, authenticity, and charisma. The film feels genuine to me. I can imagine these characters living down the street, not being pitched in a studio boardroom. They have presence, inner lives that I believe, and depth (Are you listening, Christopher Nolan?). Central to that is the delightful title performance by Danielle Macdonald. I honestly don’t think the movie would work with anyone else in the role. Because Patti is marginalized and bullied, we could expect her to be withdrawn, but there’s a positivity that Macdonald brings to the character and a genuine spirit that carries the film. Patti is all too aware of her challenges, but despite setbacks along the way, she pursues her dreams with the abandon that only someone who knows they can make it would have. It’s easy to love her for that. The supporting cast is wonderful, and the characters run deep enough that the film left me wanting to know more about their Stories. I would gladly spend more time in this world.
This is director Geremy Jasper’s first feature after cutting his teeth in shorts and music videos, and in Patti Cake$ he has emulated the strong women he grew up admiring in New Jersey, and found himself a hit. Perhaps along with the central performance, his direction is the key to this film. Often framing Patti and other characters from a tight claustrophobic angle that exacerbates their desperate need to break out of small town hell, I’ll be curious to see what Jasper does next.
I’m a fan of hip-hop, but I can’t say that I’m a fan of PBNJ musically. The songs function well enough in the context of the story and I believed them, but I can’t see any crossover potential here, and I am sure that was not the point. That said, you know, I could be wrong.
Despite its rather trodden path, and lack of fresh perspective, the charm of Patti Cake$ is undeniable and you will root for PBNJ.
Patti Cake$ hits theaters this Friday, August 18th.