I must confess to having a soft spot for the aspirational “Let’s put on a show!” musicals. Make no mistake that’s exactly what Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$ is. It may have the look of an indie drama but it has all the trappings of an old school studio musical.
Jasper combines life in Bergen County, New Jersey with a foot stomping hip-hop/lounge act musical about a young girl chasing her dreams to cross the bridge into New York City. With a Springsteen song thrown in for good measure, Patti Cake$ is a deeply emotional and optimistic take on a young girl’s journey to find herself. It’s also a sweet tender story about family and first love.
None of this works without the dynamic performance of Danielle Macdonald as Patricia Dombraski. A big white girl with dreams of conquering the rap world with her lyrics while also taking care of her mother Barb (Bridget Everett) and her Nana (Cathy Moriarty). Macdonald plays Patti with a mixture of fearlessness and sheer terror. Patti is a prickly, brash, loud, and never shy about what she wants. She’s got moxie but, thanks to her alcoholic mother, she is also ragingly insecure and sometimes rushes into situations that require more finesse than passion.
Luckily she has her Nana who supports her. Patti write limericks for while she helps her change her colostomy bag. Also on her side is her best friend/cheerleader/back up vocalist Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). Patti works at a dive bar, he works at a pharmacy. On their off hours they get together and trade lyrics and boast about how they’re going to leave town and never come back.
The duo struggle for any kind of local legitimacy. In the beginning Patti’s whiteness is never viewed as a hindrance so much as her body size and the fact that she’s a woman. The town is crawling with white boys posturing and holding rap concerts at the local V.F.W. Late at night they gather in the 7-11 parking lot to hold rap battles.
Jasper keeps racial politics flowing under the framework of Patti Cake$. Patti’s mother laughs at the idea of rap as legitimate music. When Patti meets her idol the O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah) he calls her a ‘culture vulture’. Jasper is aware, it seems, of the cultural appropriation of hip-hop as an art form. He takes great strides in showing Patti’s love of the art has to do with her ability to express herself rather than posturing.
At one of the V.F.W. shows a lanky young black man with one blue eye gets on stage. His name is Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie). The young man announces his name with a such dour yet confident tone Patti can’t help but watch him. His show, a mixture of guitar thrashing and footage of animal corpses projected behind him leave, Patti and Jheri in awe. The others are less amused and chase him off stage.
While taking her Nana to visit her husband’s grave Patti spies Basterd and follows him back to his shack in the woods, Nana in tow. It’s there she discovers his recording equipment and beat board. When Patti asks about his name and why he lives out here he merely replies “I am anarchy. Basterd the Antichrist.” Patti nods. “Cool. I think I’m Episcopalian.” Patti calls Jheri and together convince Basterd to ‘join their band’ and the rest of Patti Cake$ should seem obvious to you.
But what makes Patti Cake$ soar is how the cliches of the story are woven into a sincere musically inclusive portrait of working class life. By the second act Patti has two jobs. One job is a bartender at a dive bar. Her second job that she gets at her mother’s urging, is as a waitress for a catering company.
Jasper never suggests that anything Patti does is easy. We see her moving from job to job exhausted. At the end of her shift she goes to Basterd’s to record. It’s a ‘chase your dream’ story sure but it never pretends the chase is easy or fun.
The dive bar where Patti works has a karaoke machine. During the evening Patti’s mother Barb will come in, drink, and belt out classic 80’s hair metal hits. Barb has an impressive set of pipes. We learn she had her own band back in the day. Unlike Patti, Barb owns her body and sexuality. Whatever false bravado Patti may have about herself is learned from Barb.
The way Jasper allows their relationships to play out is the heart of the movie. Patti and Barb trade emotional wound opening insults back and forth throughout the movie. They’re relationship is starting to become dysfunctional, a fact not lost on Patti.
Everett, Macdonald, and Moriarity showcase three generations of working class New Jersey women. Nana as the crass, vulgar, take no shit, mother hen type. Barb as the wild child who had dreams of greatness but then got pregnant and was forced to work to feed her daughter. Finally Patti who’s forced to carry the weight of her mother’s dashed hopes and dreams.
Orbiting all of this is Federico Cesca whose camera work vacillates between gritty realism to lyrical surrealism. He shoots the story both like a fairy tale and a slice of life observational drama. The way Cesca captures Patti’s inner thoughts and dreams and mixes it with the harsh realities of her existence is part and parcel of what makes Patti Cake$ work as well as it does.
By the end the band has broken up only to come together at the end, Patti has overcome her insecurities about her talent and her womanhood, fractured relationships will be reconciled, she will have stumbled on her first love, and they will put on a show to blow the roof off. We’ve seen this story a million times. They are filled with cliched beats and moments. Patti Cake$ is authentic in its optimism and sincere in its storytelling though. What makes Patti Cake$ such a rare gem is that it comes by them honestly.