We already know how Patti Cake$ ends. We’ve already seen this tale of recession and rapping in New Jersey, in a different guise, in a different city, with a different musical genre (or sport, or competition, or [insert activity here]). But that doesn’t matter, not when a film is this vivacious and vital, this full of life and energy and passion. Patti Cake$ is formulaic, but it wears its formula well. To coin a phrase, it’s not the formula, it’s how you use it.
Patricia Dombrowski, a.k.a. Patti Cakes, a.k.a. White Trish, a.k.a. Juicy Luciano, a.k.a. Marilyn Mansion, a.k.a. Jane Dope, a.k.a. Killer P (Danielle Macdonald), lives in “Dirty” Jersey. She works two jobs to support her mother (Bridget Everett) and pay her ailing Nana’s medical bills. Her mother, Barb (a fitting name given the stinging gibes she hurls her daughter), spends her days watching TV and her nights singing drunken karaoke at the local watering hole (much to Patti’s chagrin; she’s the bartender). Understandably, Patti wants to get away. She dreams of becoming a rapper, moving to New York, signing a record deal, making bank.
Macdonald is a startling revelation. Her Patti is the ultimate outsider: a large white woman attempting to break into an industry in which the only white people tolerated are men, and the only women tolerated are busty swimwear models. Macdonald infuses Patti with feigned confidence, raging passion, occasional delusion, and deep emotion.
She really can rap, too; Patti’s aspiration is no idle dream, but based upon genuine talent. Macdonald performs a slew of original songs, making Patti Cake$ something akin to a musical. Think Cabaret sans Nazis, where music and lyrics are an integral part of these character’s lives. As to the songs themselves, they have a lyrical wit and musical vibrancy that makes them hard to dislike, even for someone like me, who has never been one for rap.
Aiding and abetting Patti in her quest for fame is Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), a pharmacy clerk and hip hop wannabe who sees himself as Patti’s player-manager, guiding her career and performing alongside her. They are joined by Basterd Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie), a self-styled anarchist and, shall we say, avant-garde musician with a gift for producing.
Macdonald is the frontwoman of a quartet of terrific performances. Dhananjay is a clown, his mouth writing cheques his competence struggles to cash. Basterd, with his wild dreadlocks, faux cataract, and heavily pierced face, is an imposing presence; yet Athie plays him as a self-inflicted loner, soft spoken and uncomfortable around others. Finally, there’s Nana (Cathy Moriarty), whose forty-a-day croak provides a sample for one of Patti’s songs. She’s a weary, cynical, deadpan snarker who will unconditionally support her granddaughter.
The travails of this unlikely group (who call themselves PBNJ – Patti, Basterd, Nana, Jheri) are set against the backdrop of poverty-stricken New Jersey. Jobs are scarce, dreams are scarcer. At first glance, it would seem that Patti Cake$’ setting – rundown, grimy, crumbling – should be at odds with the crowd-pleasing underdog tale that takes place within it. But director Geremy Jasper (making his feature debut) performs an expert balancing act, keeping an impressive equilibrium between gritty and gratifying. With a deft hand, Jasper juggles life on the poverty line, winning artistic struggle, and even the occasional hip hop fantasy.
Of course there’s a happy ending; this is formula, through and through. But, remember, it’s not the formula, it’s how you use it. Macdonald, in a potentially – and hopefully – starmaking turn, endows Patti’s setbacks, humiliations, and self-doubts with a keen veracity that never misses the mark, and often hits home. What’s more, the climax is an exuberantly barnstorming performance that put me in mind of the similarly spirited finale of Linklater’s School of Rock.
Patti Cake$ is an effervescent musical rollercoaster, propelled by great performances and Jasper’s sparkling (oft figuratively, sometimes literally) filmmaking. It is a film for anyone who has ever faced down the world in pursuit of their dream, who has ever been mocked or shot down just for doing what they love. Patti Cake$ is for the dreamers.