September 2, 2017
Festival darling Patti Cake$ is not the first recent film to use music as a vehicle to explore the tumultuous journey of an artist chasing their dream, but it might be the best.
Patricia Dombrowski, aka Patti, aka Patti Cake$, aka Killa P, is an aspiring rapper trying to find a way out of her rundown New Jersey town. She’s one of the large number of working poor who have ambition and drive, but who are bogged down by lack of opportunity and unfortunate circumstances. Patti’s mom once dreamed of being a singer, but these days she’s an out of work alcoholic who can’t book a gig bigger than the local bar’s karaoke night. Patti’s live-in grandmother is sick and her medical bills put a continual financial strain on the entire family. Patti herself works two jobs and draws from her own desperate desire to break free of the things that make her feel trapped in her own life to write her rhymes. When Patti and her sidekick/hype man Jheri connect with a producer who can provide the beats their sound needs to be complete, they find themselves on a path that could lead to success, fame, and freedom.
So far, it sounds like the girl version of 8 Mile, right? It’s not a bad comparison, and this review could easily be an “if you liked 8 Mile, you’ll love Patti Cake$ ” style piece. Patti Cake$ doesn’t have the pedigree of that film, and perhaps the stakes aren’t quite as life or death as the ones of that protagonist. But the environment is similar, Patti herself spits rhymes on par with Eminem’s B-Rabbit, and, after all, is there any stake higher than getting the boot that prohibits you from being the person you know you’re meant to be off your neck?
A better comparison, or perhaps juxtaposition, is Patti Cake$ and last year’s La La Land. Where La La Land presented a glossy, stylized, portrayal of ambition and dream-following, Patti Cake$’ heart is rooted in dirt-under-your-fingernails grit, and its magic in Patti herself who is a “boss bitch” with more confidence and talent in her pinky finger than most wannabes could ever dream of having. The music is superb. Catchy hooks and killer rhymes stick with you long after the movie’s credits roll. If La La Land is the sterile, glamorized, Hollywood version of chasing your dream, Patti Cake$ is the scraped knuckles, make-it-by-the-skin-of-your-teeth world most artists actually inhabit.
Siddharth Dhananjay as Jheri, Mamoudie Athie as producer Bastard, and Bridget Everett as Patti’s mom Barb all shine in convincing portrayals of their characters, but there’s no question that the real star is Danielle Macdonald, a relative unknown who bursts onto the screen as Patti, and refuses to take any of your or anyone else’s sh*t. Macdonald embodies Patti in such a convincing way, it’s hard to imagine she didn’t have a rap career prior to appearing here. Patti is complex – a poor white girl trying to make it big as a rapper. It’s an aspiration not everyone respects or finds appropriate, and Patti faces that criticism with an honest dignity that makes you believe in her and, more importantly, makes you believe she believes in herself.
There have certainly been compelling films in the past that were made to inspire their audiences to follow their dreams, even if it’s only to be absolutely true to yourself, but Patti Cake$’ big heart and truly remarkable heroine ensure it’s a unique place among its prestigious predecessors.
Star Rating: 5 out of 5