Film Review: ‘Patti Cake$’

Sundance
Courtesy of Sundance

Music video director Geremy Jasper launches an unlikely rap star — and unforgettable indie underdog — in his high-energy feature debut.

You’ve never met a rapper like Patricia Dombrowski. Her best friend calls her Killa-P, while the haters call her Dumbo, but to us, she will always be “Patti Cake$,” an overweight white hip-hop artist who announces her force-of-nature personality from her very first song, “mylifesfuckinawesome.” While Patti’s one-of-a-kind, it’s easy to recognize the type: a cross between Dawn Weiner and Precious — both Sundance discoveries as well. Every few years, an indie character comes along who so perfectly captures what it’s like to be mocked and marginalized, even as she refuses to let the bullies and abusers have the last word. That’s the kind of character Patti Cake$ is, and that’s why she stands to become one of the year’s most endearing discoveries, via a film that launches an equally compelling new directing talent.

No doubt bound to become a household-name, Patti (Danielle Macdonald) is the creation of first-time feature helmer Geremy Jasper, whose high-attitude heroine isn’t nearly as fictional as she might seem at first glance. Rather, she represents a cross between self-deprecating self-portrait — as a once-chubby, boom-bap-obsessed New Jersey native — and the strong women he admired growing up.

Patti’s the polar opposite of the skinny, practically anorexic pop stars who dominate the music industry today, and that posed a special challenge in the search for the right person to portray her. Simply put, Jasper’s plus-size protagonist wouldn’t be nearly so compelling had he not landed on Australian émigré Macdonald, a raw young actress whose screen presence comes not from her size, but in the way she engages the camera.

From the beginning, DP Federico Cesca pushes in close to Macdonald, alternately following her from behind or framing her dead-center and slightly from below. Either way, she looms large, like the star of her own music video. (When rapping alone, is she singing for herself or for our personal benefit? And is the way she swaggers down the middle of city streets and drugstore aisles done for the benefit of unseen security cameras or for the imaginary ones that just so happen to be telling her story?)

Raised on the iconography of MTV, Patti’s a dreamer who fancies herself a gangsta, even if ennui is the worst of her hardships. The film opens in the throes of one of her fantasies, suffocating the would-be emcee in smoke machines and fluorescent green light as star hip-hop producer O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah) brings Patti to the stage for a massive concert. And then she wakes up, snapped back to reality by her alarm clock, in the shabby pig sty she shares with her drunken-wreck mom Barb (Bridget Everett) and wheelchair-bound Nana (Cathy Moriarty).

The hovel where Patti lives is more flophouse than home, and it’s easy to imagine why she’d be so eager to get out. But Patti’s boss refuses to give her extra hours at the bar, and besides, her mom drinks away most of what she earns anyway. Barb was once a promising musician in her own right, though she gave that all up when she became pregnant with Patti. Given that personal history, one imagines she’d be supportive of her daughter’s music career, but the truth is, she doesn’t consider rap to be music.

But Patti isn’t looking to prove herself to anybody. At the encouragement of her biggest fan — and only friend — Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay), she battles rivals in gas-station parking lots and schemes about how she and Hareesh might finally earn some stage time of their own. He’s a devoted friend, but not a romantic interest, which leaves room for Patti to imagine herself with the scuzzy drug dealer (Patrick Brana) who works at the local pizza parlor and/or a mad-at-the-world punk rocker (Mamoudou Athie) who calls himself the Antichrist. Stalking the latter to his shack behind the graveyard, Patti somehow convinces the asocial African-American musician to collaborate, resulting in one of those witnessing-something-special scenes in which Patti, Hareesh, and this black Marilyn Manson lookalike spontaneously create the signature song of their new group, PBNJ.

Once the members of PBNJ has a few songs under their collective belt, they record a demo album, and Hareesh starts to look for a venue where they can unleash their sound upon the world. The best he can manage is a “gentlemen’s club” called Cheeters — a dive no worse than the strip malls and roadside diners where they wile away the rest of their time. Though the gritty vision of New Jersey depicted in “Patti Cake$” won’t lure many tourists, it feels authentic to the director’s experience, representing the socioeconomic quicksand both Jasper and Patti are determined to rise above.

Patti’s ticket is her talent, and Macdonald sells the profane songs that Jasper has written for her. Society has a tendency to underestimate big girls — to see them as lazy or unmotivated — and Patti’s here to prove otherwise, as the over-amped soundtrack boosts each of her songs to event status. This is the kind of movie where the energy builds to such levels that a packed-house audience can hardly resist bursting into applause when Patti raps — as well they should, considering that Macdonald manages to sell the Jasper’s irreverent lyrics while masking (nearly) all traces of her Australian accent.

Meanwhile, by casting bawdy cabaret phenom (and Amy Schumer amigo) Everett as Patti’s mother, Jasper brings a genuine singing sensation into the mix, allowing the film to alternate between hip-hop numbers and Barb-performed power ballads — which work their way up from pathetic karaoke-night Heart covers to the impromptu diva moment that sends the film’s finale into the stratosphere. In the end, it’s the ensemble’s collective attitude, plus the palpable chemistry between Patti and her friends, that defines the experience, not the stock desire to be discovered. Though if Patti Cake$ really did exist, this movie would certainly make her star.

Film Review: 'Patti Cake$'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 2017. Running time: 108 MIN.

Production

A RT Features, Stay Gold, Maiden Voyage Pictures presentation, of a Department of Motion Pictures production. Producers: Daniela Taplin Lundberg Chris Columbus. Executive producers: Lourenço Sant’Anna, Sophie Mas, Eleanor Columbus, Josh Penn, Jonathan Bronfman, Lon Molnar, Fernando Fraiha, Bill Benenson. Co-producer: Jonathan Montepare.

Crew

Director/writer: Geremy Jasper. Camera (color): Federico Cesca. Editor: Brad Turner. Music: Jasper, Jason Binnick.

With

Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, Cathy Moriarty, Siddharth Dhananjay, Mamoudou Athie, Patrick Brana, Sahr Ngaujah, MC Lyte.

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  1. Sophia says:

    Does it talk about the rampant racism rappers confront when trying to share their music with a wider, mainstream audience and make bank without having their trade co-opted by white people who have an easier time getting recognition and getting movies made about them? Also, how is she like a rapper I’ve “never met” before? Everything described here has been relevant to and in the music of many rappers (including being a woman, being overweight, feeling excluded/trying to find your own, being shy etc.) The only salient difference I picked up is she’s white.

    Is appropriation of Black American music addressed at all in the film? (Not acknowledging that she’s white, that’s completely unavoidable, but appropriation as a phenomenon that intellectually and through capital undermines the works of Black people.) Perhaps when her mom “doesn’t consider rap to be music?” Do they explore why she thinks this? Is it portrayed as an unsupportive mom as well as a common form of racism that is only covert because many white people are not convinced it’s actually racism informing such beliefs?

    Couldn’t the director have chosen a person from Jersey who actually had experience rapping, which would not be hard and make a more realistic movie, and perhaps not continue the tradition of thwarting possibilities for Black people to be main characters almost ever? Did you see the cover and pictures of the actress posing? No shade to her, I’m not sure what kind of feelings they told her to channel, or why her arms are folded up so high on her chest, but… The commercial looked really cool in many ways and probably has lots of talent, but…

    Using Blackness as a prop for white people’s self-discovery AGAIN. This actress had no experience rapping and was from Australia and expressed surprise that the director reached out to her. And he then just has her start “rapping”? How did he come up with making the actress a rapper? Does he have so little respect for it as an art that he thinks it won’t be recognizably bad? If they HAD to use a white person couldn’t the movie be about her trying to break through as an actress? Then she could know that authentically. I would be curious as to why he chose the rap medium.

  2. Jai says:

    This movie was the worst film I’ve watched since…idk…hustle and flow smh. Terrible

  3. Anonymous says:

    That moment when you find out her friend is an actual rapper

  4. Forus Grump says:

    Why is she is not wearing her “pussyhat” from the Women’s March in this picture?

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