‘Patti Cake$’ cuts and trudges through the New Jersey grit to inspire dreams
Written and directed by: Geremy Jasper
Starring: Danielle Macdonald, Siddharth Dhananjay, Mamoudou Athie, Cathy Moriarty, and Bridget Everett
“Patti Cake$” – For Patti (Danielle Macdonald), her dreams are far better than her present state of affairs. This 23-year-old, lifelong New Jerseyite lives with her mom (Bridget Everett) and grandmother (nicknamed Nana (Cathy Moriarty)) in a crowded house in which the television is always turned on, and her working hours are spent bartending at a depressing local tavern named Lou’s. Lou (John Sharian) is stingy about granting Patti more hours but freely gives her frank, direct orders like, “The toilet is still clogged, and the karaoke machine isn’t going to set itself up.”
Setting herself up for success is not a routine that Patti usually practices, but that is not surprising after a couple decades of zero encouragement from her mom and repeated teasing from classmates about her weight. Not only do those schoolyard taunts echo as painful memories, but they reside in her present, as those same bullies repeatedly call her “Dumbo” to this day. Thankfully, Nana and her best friend, a pharmacist named Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), always provide kind words.
Jheri and Patti form an unlikely duo, but the two attempt an improbable journey towards stardom as hip-hop artists, as they dream in a place where hope is nonexistent or fleeting at best. Even though their aspirations feel farfetched, writer/director Geremy Jasper crafts an underdog story which feels wholly genuine within an aging New Jersey neighborhood, sitting just across the Hudson River from New York City.
From the very beginning, Jasper – very effectively - deposits the audience in a blue-collar desperation of clouded misery with several establishing shots of Patti’s environment, including a drone shot of a nearby automobile graveyard and another capture of smoke emanating from a power plant or chemical factory just off the freeway. Her outside surroundings emotionally match her mood within the confines of her cluttered room as contents from her pockets from the last six months and random pieces of clothing are strewed in her bedroom. In some ways, Patti’s life parallels Rocky Balboa’s, and her platonic Adrian is Jheri. He is a positive light in her life, and one of the very few driving forces in opening up her talent. Jasper offers an early hint of Patti’s gifts, as she delivers some machine gun-rhymes to the pounding beat of Jheri’s palm smacking the hood of her car.
Her talent exists, but it needs a chance to bloom through opportunity.
In turn, Macdonald makes the most of her “Patti Cake$” opportunity. She completely shines by playing both sides of her character: an insecure, naïve young woman who willingly turns into and spins in never-ending life cul-de-sacs, but who also possesses genius abilities to fly over them at any point…if she knew how. Unfortunately, Patti does not have the self-esteem and knowhow to soar, and her weight problems emotionally pull her down and act as a figurative anchor of self-loathing. Macdonald’s Patti hardly ever verbalizes her internalized contempt, but we see it in her face and body language in many moments throughout the picture. Her one spoken exception is when she looks in the mirror and says to herself that she is gorgeous, but it is bathed in sarcasm. When she raps, however, she thankfully and fortunately proclaims goddess-like status, as her music is a positive outlet in multiple ways.
Macdonald and Jasper lay skillfully-crafted groundwork to offer a very worthy protagonist to rally behind and support, while the picture takes familiar turns towards better places. Any moderately informed moviegoer can see the film’s direction, but through the memorable and likable characters’ trying journeys fighting the cold New Jersey grit, it becomes very easy to lose yourself in the moments and cheer on the heroes. This occurs, even when one of Patti’s champions calls himself Bastard the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie). Yes, that is his name, or his stage name anyway. Nana develops into a strong ally as well and delivers some key spots of crowd-pleasing humor. Nana’s onscreen presence serves an important one, as she also acts as a trustworthy passageway for those not familiar with hip-hop, especially when her role steps into the music business.
One does not have to be a rap or hip-hop fan to enjoy “Patti Cake$” for two reasons. One, its relatable themes garner our empathy and understanding, even if the physical setting seems foreign. Two, Macdonald’s convincing rap faculties lift our spirits and offer pleasing head-bouncing rhythms, and the film’s performances combined with the music offer a smiling inducing nirvana that is the stuff of dreams. Not dreams of the future, but those of the present.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.