REVIEWED BY GREG KING
Director: Geremy Jasper
Stars: Danielle MacDonald, Bridget Everett, Cathy Moriarty, Siddharth Dhananjay, Mamoudou Athie, Sahr Ngaujah.
White girls can’t rap?
There have been some great movies set against the backdrop of the rap music or hip-hop scene, like 8 Mile, Hustle And Flow and even the recent Straight Outta Compton about the rise of the controversial rap group Public Image, which have been enjoyable even to people like me who don’t particularly like rap music. And there is a touch of 8 Mile about this underdog story of an aspiring white rapper trying to make it on her own terms.
Patti Cake$ is another variation on the rags to riches story as it follows Patti Dumbrowski (played by little known Australian actress Danielle MacDonald), an aspiring rapper, aka Killer-P and Patti Cakes, who hails from a rundown neighbourhood of New Jersey. She is a most unlikely rapper – she is white and overweight – but she has a drive to succeed and her never say die attitude sees her overcome a lot of obstacles to achieve her dreams. She is full of anger and frustration and aggression and these emotions drive her killer rhymes.
There is also a lot of jealousy between her and her mother Barbara (played by Bridget Everett, a frequent collaborator with Amy Schumer), who once had a successful singing career until she had to give it up when she was pregnant with Patricia. There is a simmering resentment that shapes their relationship. Barbara still belts out the occasional number at karaoke night at the dead-end bar where Patricia works. The film explores the toxic relationship Patricia has with her hard-drinking mother, who dishes out plenty of verbal and emotional abuse. The family are struggling financially as well.
But Patricia also receives some support from her wisecracking, pill popping wheelchair bound grandmother (played by Cathy Moriarty, from Raging Bull, etc) who encourages her musical dream. Patti also has help from Jehri (Siddharth Dhananjay), who works in the local pharmacy and encourages her in her rap battles in the car park, and punk rocker Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a hermit with his own do it yourself recording studio whom she meets at the cemetery. Patti is also obsessed with rap music star O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), and hopes to meet him so she can give him a demo tape and hopefully help kick start her career. But their first meeting does not go quite as planned.
Patti Cakes is the debut feature film for writer/director Geremy Jasper, a New Jersey born director of music videos, who has based much of the film on his own upbringing in a crumbling neighbourhood of New Jersey. He is intimately familiar with the environment, and he brings a sense of authenticity to this background of runaway dreams, rundown neighbourhoods and vacant stores that Bruce Springsteen sings about so eloquently. This is an assured debut for Jasper, who brings plenty of flair and energy to the material, and the music score itself is brash and raw. Jasper brings a 90s music video vibe to the material at times. The film is firmly grounded in the working-class background of the characters, and these characters and their fading dreams could easily have come from a Springsteen song. In fact, a haunting Springsteen ballad plays over the final credits.
Jasper and his cinematographer Frederico Cesca, who hails from a background in short films, bring some surreal touches to the film, especially in a couple of dream sequences which have been shot in a sort of neon lit green palette and which seem to have been heavily influenced by the likes of Fellini and David Lynch. His deliberately dark and moody cinematography also perfectly captures the run-down environment that Patricia inhabits. There is a touch of 8 Mile to the familiar story, but Jasper manages to take the material in a different direction and it feels fresh. The film aims for a feel-good vibe, but it is let down slightly by its ambiguous and cheesy ending.
Patti Cake$ follows Patti’s dark and often troubled journey, and it owes much of its success to the performance of MacDonald whose raw, gritty and honest work grounds the film and holds the audienceâ€™s attention. She spent the better part of 18 months preparing for the role and she lends a gritty authenticity to her character. This is a breakout performance for the charismatic MacDonald and her tour de force performance here should see her land plenty more work in Hollywood.
We haven’t seen a lot of Moriarty on screen lately, but she delivers a superb performance. Everett has a formidable screen presence and also delivers a strong performance as Patti’s mother, an alcoholic who has let life’s disappointments grind her down. But she also has a raunchy stage presence when she takes to the stage at the local bar. This is a strong debut for Dhanajay who brings some comic relief to the material, while Athie has a strong but silent presence as the enigmatic Basterd.
Patti Cake$ is a story that explores themes of family, friendship, stardom, and never giving up on your dreams. However, with its abrasive style it may not appeal to everyone. Nonetheless this film has been a hit on the festival circuit and is worth catching for the breakout performance from MacDonald.