Apparently being a crowd-pleasing film is a problem for some, and it is for me too when a work panders and manipulates with no shame. But Patti Cake$, feature film debut from writer-director-composer-songwriter Geremy Jasper, earns its underdog status as well as its reputation on the festival circuit as being a movie that lifts people up on the strength of its catchy tunes and its winning lead performance from Australian-born actress Danielle Macdonald who plays Patti, a Jersey girl with aspirations of being the world’s next great hip-hop artist with a little help from an unlikely support team.
While it’s true that Patti Cake$ owes a certain debt to Eminem’s 8 Mile (I’ve heard Patti referred to as “Feminem”), the film also borrows a bit from Bruce Springsteen’s biography, as a musician who is desperate to escape her small and small-minded New Jersey town, but after achieving certain artistic dreams, they realize that home is where those closest to you live. Director Jasper even uses a rare, only recently released Springsteen’s The River album outtake under the opening credits to underscore the connection. Patti is overweight and has been teased so much during her 20-plus years of life that she barely acknowledges the insults as they come hurtling toward her from the usual suspects—many of whom are people she likely went to high school with, none of whom left their dead-end town.
In fact, Patti’s confidence levels as a rapper are pretty high, even during her first spontaneous entry into a rap battle with a local MC, and it should come as no surprise that the only person on the planet who attempts to make her feel less than talented is her mother Barb (played by comedy cabaret singer Bridget Everett, showing genuine talent as a dramatic actor). In her own mind, Barb almost made it as a rock singer in the ’80s, but an unplanned pregnancy ended that, which puts an extra layer of guilt and resentment between daughter and mother. Today, Barb is a drunk who frequents the karaoke bar where her daughter bartends.
Patti’s rock is her sickly, wheelchair-bound grandmother (Cathy Moriarty), who was probably a bad mother to Barb but is trying out unconditional love on Patti. Other members of Patti’s squad include her long-time friend and on-stage sideman Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay) and eventually a shy punk-rock outcast who calls himself “Basterd” (Mamoudou Athie), who ends up allowing Patti and Hareesh to record her first demos and mixtape on his equipment using his beats (they even sample Nana for their first recording). The sequence showing Patti piecing together her first track (a hummable little ditty called “PBNJ”) is actually quite exhilarating because it feels like the first time her dream is showing signs of life.
There are lessons in Patti Cake$ about tempering your expectations, meeting your heroes, and accepting encouragement from the unlikeliest of people (a cameo by MC Lyte comes at just the right moment), but the odds are that somewherw along Patti’s journey, you’ll submit fully to how uplifting and infectious the tunes are and how inspirational her story is, even if you can’t really relate to her life in any way. The film is for anyone who has wanted something that seems impossible to everyone but the dreamer. If you are, by nature, a cynical person, then maybe this isn’t for you. The film is meant to be a fantasy to a large degree, except the negativity and cruelty that surround Patti hit home like something very real. There’s an energy and passion to both the film and the character that is undeniable and will slip into your head and heart like a funky beat. If you think this film isn’t for you, then I’ll go out on a limb and say that’s probably the best reason to see it.
The films opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.