Starring: Danielle MacDonald, Bridget Everett, Mamoudou Athie
Director: Geremy Jaspar
Running Time: 109 mins
Synopsis: Patricia Dombrowski (MacDonald) dreams of escaping her tough New Jersey neighbourhood through her rap persona Patti Cake$. Help is on hand from her uncouth grandmother, her best friend and a mysterious musician. But haters (including her own mum), economic woes and the challenges of finding stardom stand in her way.
Debuting at Sundance back in January, Patti Cake$ found itself at the heart of a bitter bidding war. It isn’t hard to see why. A low-budget drama set within a world not seen often, that of the underground hip-hop scene, hailing from a newbie director, with a largely unknown cast and a rough around the edges energy. But less of a gamble thanks to the familiarity of its plot beats. Studios are a big proponent of film that on a surface level may be risky but have a bedrock of something audiences can latch onto. This is not to besmirch Patti Cake$ which overcomes such formula with a heartfelt dramatic core and some terrific performances.
Leading the front is a storming Danielle MacDonald as the titular Patti. Trapped within the confines of her tough New Jersey neighbourhood, she yearns to launch herself out of there with dreams of being a famous rap artist. These aspirations are thrown at us in a series of vibrant albeit unnecessary flights of fancy permeated throughout the film. Limited by the budget constraints and lacking in depth beyond what we already know, they feel superfluous, a sign of a director concerned that we may not understand her goals. Patricia finds those dreams held back by numerous obstacles. Not least the severe monetary limits her neck of the woods suffers from. Director Geremy Jaspar wisely never bombards us with unwarranted establishing shots of the surrounding poverty this town endures. We feel it in the scummy dive bars Patti visits, with its drunken regulars, or the desperate clamouring for a better paying job, or the unpaid medical bills for her stricken Grandma. This is a world of unfulfilled dreams, bruised egos and forgotten artists.
No more is that seen than in the volatile nature of Patti’s mother Barb. In what is the films most obvious note Barb is also a talented singer, but one held down by the world she was brought up in and the incessant bad breaks she has faced. As you can expect she takes these frustrations out on her daughter, shutting down Patti’s hopes with a callous remark or even flat out abuse. There is a deep amount of love there, but too often she is blinded by her own self-obsessive maudlin regrets. Familiar this may well be it is given added punch from a terrific Bridget Everett. Her face awash with devastating guilt at just how hurtful and bitter her words can be to Patti. Whilst also providing the final scenes a formidable potency, as mother and daughter begin to finally see each other for who they really are.
Fortunately for Patti she is surrounded by those who care. Individuals she decides to rope into forming a mismatched rap band, in the vain attempt to smash through. Best friend Jheri is the token comedic role, albeit a warm and affectionate one. Siddharth Dhananjay effective as a man deeply loyal to Patti, and one who strives to bring out what he knows is laying within. It is refreshing to see a male/female relationship borne of proper kinship without the need to add an uncouth romantic overtone to it. Said romance is saved for the mysterious Basterd. An almost mute isolated individual, his pierced face, starkly coloured eye contact (just the one), and aggressive music masking a man with deep rooted pain. Mamoudou Athie is a real find, his deeply poetic voice combined with some of the most heartbreakingly expressive eyes I’ve seen on screen give his character a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him affectation that captivates. Last among this band of rebels is Patti’s sweary, fierce grandma played by Cathy Moriarty. Gravelly voiced, confined to a wheelchair and twisted in her humour, she is a wonderfully sketched force of nature. Her encouragement and affection towards Patti is endearing, able to see the beauty of her talent whilst never afraid to challenge just how confusing this music world of Patti’s is to her. The interplay between the four of them is authentic, heartfelt and by far the strongest aspect of the film.
Well that and the phenomenal central performance by MacDonald. A relative newcomer, she graces Patti with a strength of spirit that disarms. Beaten down, literally in the case of one breathless rap battle, but stoic in her desire to succeed. Even when events conspire to bring her as low as she could possibly get, you will her to fight on, to sing loud and to ignore the haters, culminating in a finale that is fist-pumping and tear-inducing. The energy she brings is matched by Jaspar, who directs with a street level immediacy. He perhaps overplays his mark with a rather excessive use of camera movement, feeling the need to give it a shaky aspect even in quiet dialogue scenes. We aren’t talking Bourne style shaky-cam here but it is enough to distract at times. Likewise his repeated use of jump cuts, while effective, become a tired trope after the third or fourth use. A scene of Patti dreamily watching her mother sing in a scuzzy bar, Barb’s soulful tones at odds with the sadness of her surroundings, before a jump cut into her mum vomiting into the toilet is this effect at its best. A Patti dream scene cutting to her being rudely interrupted by the car she’s stepped in front of, is a hopelessly tired convention.
For all this though, Jaspar gives Patti Cake$ a verve and tangible believability, allowing his performers time to showcase their strong performances. Whilst the songs are not the most memorable, save one or two, he wraps them within his story nicely, giving the musical moments a kinetic almost tense filled rhythm. Patti Cake$ may not reinvent the wheel or give you anything you haven’t seen before but it will leave you elated, thrilled and moved. Now that is a film I’d bid highly for too.
Verdict: Patti Cake$ may be familiar but it is also sincere, lively and blessed with dynamic performances, particularly from Danielle MacDonald. A little rough-hewed gem of a film.