Patti Cakes

Are we to believe that Patti Cake$ is a movie about a white New Jersey girl who raps? And whose rhymes are actually tight? Can it be possible? Yes, it can.

Patti Cake$ is about an underdog trying to make an impression in the cut-throat world of hip hop, where being white, female and overweight count against a dreamer like Patti Dombrowski (Australian newcomer Daniel MacDonald). Patti, or “Killer P” as she’s styled in her raps (in addition to a slew of other nicknames), or “Dumbo” as she’s cruelly called by fat-shaming idiotic peers, has majestic, green-tinted dreams of becoming a protege to her idol, hip-hop legend OZ.

That’s before she’s rudely awakened by her alcohol-abusing mother Barb (Bridget Everett) demanding she take care of her ailing nana while receiving threatening voicemail messages on her flip-phone from creditors. Patti works double shifts at poorly paid serving jobs in order to help pay her mom down the debt of her gran’s health-care bills.

But Patti is young, and she knows exactly how to blow off steam after holding back her mom’s hair as Barb gets intimate with a public toilet after getting too drunk and belting out karaoke tunes. Mother Dombrowski’s not the only one with musical talent: Patti spits rhymes, freestyles and chills with her best friend, confidante, and hype man Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), a good-natured, hip-hop-obsessed pharmacist who sees Patti’s tremendous talent as their ticket out of their decrepit N.J. hellhole.

Patti Cake$ follows the typical young-adult hero’s journey: the big impossible dream of hip-hop superstardom, the uncaring, insensitive parental figure and the motley crew of like-minded allies. These eventually include Basterd, a taciturn, anarchist electronic musician (Mamoudou Athie), and Patti’s tough-as-nails grandmother (Cathy Moriarty), who may not understand her music, but unlike Barb, supports her anyway. Patti even gets Nana to growl “PBNJ,” the name of their group into a mic, the roaring intro call on a demo track that Jheri enthusiastically mass produces on CD.

PBNJ is old school, but that’s because in Bergen County, N.J., CDs, flip phones, Discman players and junk-food-for-breakfast are the only things people like Patti can afford. First-time director Geremy Jasper – who also produced the film’s tune-heavy soundtrack – plays a lot with colour saturation, wobbly cameras and zoom-ins to extreme close-ups of MacDonald’s face when she’s facing off against haters. He does this to depict Patti’s surroundings as dire, yet earthy and real, instead of purely drab. Nonetheless, there is a playful sense of humour to Jasper’s direction and cinematography; an idiosyncratic, brashy aesthetic that strongly complements our fierce, OG protagonist’s personality and the uncaring deadbeats surrounding her.

This being a hero’s journey, Patti must make some extremely difficult decisions in order to realize her dreams. Patti Cake$ has no illusions about overnight success; the film understands that an artist must always be making small baby steps in order to make bigger and bigger steps. Making a demo CD, getting the right people to listen to it, competing in battle raps and shows – these all become the basic building blocks for Patti.

Like any rags-to-riches narrative, Patti Cake$ also demands that its protagonist make ultimate sacrifices, ones that are often soul-sucking and financially debilitating. Aside from an ill-advised, unnecessary romantic side plot, the film’s narrative balances the sacrifices Patti must make in her McJobs, her inevitable disillusionment with music stardom and the epiphany of paving her own path.

While it’s all pretty straightforward and predictable, Patti Cake$ squeezes out a lot of charm from its cast, especially from the empathetic, defiant, and supremely talented MacDonald, whose real-life success should be inevitable after this film.

Originally published in the National Post (Aug. 21, 2017).