Film Review: Patti Cake$

by Carrie Kahn on August 25, 2017

Straight outta Jersey: Portrait of an unlikely rap star makes for one of the summer’s best films    

Aspiring rapper Patti, AKA Patti Cake$, AKA Killa P (Danielle Macdonald), makes a grand entrance at the pharmacy where her friend Jheri works. 

New Jersey filmmaker Geremy Jasper got his start making music videos, so it makes sense that his first foray into feature films is a picture about an aspiring musician. With Patti Cake$, Jasper draws on both his New Jersey upbringing and his music video experience to bring us the thoroughly entertaining story of one Patricia Dombrowski. She’s Patti to her friends and family and Patti Cake$ or Killa P in her brilliantly constructed rap songs, but, either way, Patti is one of the most unique and unforgettable characters to grace the silver screen this year, and her story makes for a great way to close out the summer film season.

Newcomer Danielle Macdonald gives a bravado performance so steeped in Jersey authenticity that you’ll never believe the actress actually hails from Australia. But Macdonald’s turn as Patti is remarkable not just for her Streep-like accent mastery and her deft skill with spitting rhymes, but also for the way she creates a truly flawed, complex, and indelible character, instead of what easily could have been a superficial stereotype.

Patti lives at home with her alcoholic mother (the terrific Bridget Everett) and ailing Nana (Cathy Moriarty, stealing every scene she’s in), works multiple jobs to help support the household, and spends her time hanging with fellow wannabe rapper Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). When Patti meets a brooding anarchist who calls himself Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie) and who also happens to have some state-of-the-art recording equipment, Patti, with Jheri and Nana in tow, finally gets her wish, and the foursome – dubbed by Patti as PBNJ (all of their initials together make for a catchy song) – record an album. The film’s soundtrack, in fact, is one of the highlights of the already charming movie; all of Patti’s songs were written by Jasper, and he proves himself just as much of a poet as Patti (and Jersey fans can rest assured that the requisite Springsteen track opens the film, as well).

Patti (Danielle Macdonald, l.) reluctantly pours her mom (Bridget Everett) another shot. 

The way that Jasper conveys what the album – and rap music in general – means to Patti is wonderfully executed. In an early scene, Patti walks down the street with her headphones on, and we literally see her feet leave the ground, allowing us to viscerally feel just how transported she is by the sounds she loves. Other fantasy sequences involve her favorite rap star Oz (Sahr Ngaujah), who, when Patti finally gets a chance to meet him, brings her down to earth in a way that’s both devastating and eye opening, and unflinchingly addresses Patti’s whiteness in terms of her love of a historically black music genre, a thread the movie doesn’t shy away from exploring.

And Patti isn’t the only one in her family with musical ambitions; her mother Barb (Everett) had been a rocker back in the’80s, and a karaoke scene in which Barb belts out “These Dreams” is one of the most poignant in the film. The mother/daughter relationship is a central theme of the movie, and Jasper eloquently and often heartbreakingly shows us how complicated such a relationship can be, especially when the mother and daughter still have similar dreams. We see in Barb’s wistfulness about her own musical past and her belittling of Patti’s current dreams the regret and longing that Barb still has, which manifests often in mean, drunken competitiveness with her daughter, despite the fact that we know Barb loves Patti fiercely. That Barb can see Patti wants to get out of small town Jersey (scenes of Patti and Jheri parking and gazing at the Manhattan skyline are beautifully and poetically shot) is obvious, as is Barb’s conflicting feelings about allowing Patti a path Barb never had.

Patti (Danielle Macdonald) finally connects with Basterd (Mamoudou Athie).

Patti Cake$ is the second movie this summer to show us how powerful art – in this case making music and writing lyrics – can be in helping us to both heal psychologically and to take us to another spiritual, if not physical, place when we need it most. In Brigsby Bear the catalyst medium was filmmaking, and here it’s rap songs, but, in both cases, a creative outlet is exactly what the films’ central characters need to help them move through dark personal issues and circumstances into hope and light.

Jasper and his cast present that message so movingly and enjoyably that a few minor flaws are easily forgivable. Perhaps the most glaring of these is that the film ends with a Final Big Battle trope (in this case a rap competition) that feels out of place in a movie that, up until this point, has been truly original. But Jasper saves himself from the clichéd Big Game pitfalls admirably, as our heroes remain true to themselves, and some unexpected moments keep the scene from being too hackneyed. Less annoying but still noticeable is a change in Basterd, who, in the span of one scene, basically becomes a completely different character, for reasons that are never adequately explained; the viewer is left feeling like the alteration was not necessary, out of nowhere, and not at all believable.

But those are small complaints in this otherwise pleasing and imaginative Sundance Grand Jury Prize-nominated film, and shouldn’t deter you from seeing it. With its themes of love and acceptance and the empowering influence of family, friendship, and art, Patti Cake$ belongs on your don’t-miss list.

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Patti Cake$ opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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