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.