For large swathes of the populace, the American Dream is almost dead. In a country where a family member being sick can send you into debt for life and lose your house, what’s the point of aspiration? Patti Cake$ is the latest in a long line of films about members of the working class on the cusp of ruin, praying for the bootstraps to pull themselves to a better life. Bitter realism and starry eyed optimism clash in an epic battle for the very soul of an entire nation.
Patricia “Killa P” Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald, TV’s The Rachels) has to hold down several jobs to help her mother (Bridget Everett, Little Evil) pay her Nana’s (Cathy Moriarty, I’m Dying Up Here) hospital bills. When she’s not working, Patricia teams up with Nana, her friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhanajay) and “antichrist” musician Basterd (Mamoudou Athie, The Circle) to record music as PBNJ, in the hopes that their beats and rhymes will get them recognised on the New Jersey scene.
A movie like Patti Cake$ often centres itself around its lead, and Macdonald is exactly the woman the role calls for. There’s a certain physicality to the role that requires a larger actress, but Patti Cake$ never exploits Macdonald. Patricia knows exactly who she is and what she wants; the only thing she really needs to change is how to get it. Macdonald is Australian, but was coached into delivering a (presumably accurate) New Jersey accent. She’s charismatic but also capable of delivering the lows that Patricia inevitably suffers.
Everett, mostly known for her work in comedy, proves to have a deep well of pathos to draw from as the woman that Patricia idolises but desperately wishes not to become. The remainder of PBNJ are actually characters enough in themselves, and Moriarty plays Nana for more than simple laughs. The music that they make together is more than competent, and the idea that they could get noticed is never beyond the realm of believability.
From a construction perspective, Patti Cake$ has an unfortunate cascade of terrible things happening to the characters and trying to bring them down. Writer director Geremy Jasper, who mainly works in music videos, has a handle on most of his material, yet it feels slightly artificial for everything to happen as it does at that late stage; an argument could conceivably be made that real life isn’t neatly structured, but it does interfere with the flow of Patti Cake$. Still, it rallies in time for a finale that is still capable of surprise, and doesn’t sink a film that has enough event and characterisation to pull through.
Patti Cake$ isn’t exactly a rare film, but it is a fine addition to the pantheon of underdog movies. With an excellent cast, some rhymes that are ridiculously complex and some hooks that will actually leave the cinema with you, Patti Cake$ shows its audience the “Tuff Love” they need to endure this harsh and unforgiving world.
Patti Cake$ opened in Australian cinemas on September 14, 2017.
Directed by: Geremy Jasper.
Starring: Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, Siddarth Dhananjay, Mamoudou Athie and Cathy Morairty.