"An unabashed triumph ... destined to be the unseen crowd-pleaser to end the summer. "
by Steve Pulaski
Geremy Jasper has an unabashed triumph in his debut feature Patti Cake$ as it proves more real than a broken leg, hotter than summertime, and sicker than an overcrowded hospital. Featuring a knockout performance from a character actress in the making and surrounded by a movie with equal amounts of brash attitude, the film comes from behind in a year filled with great female leads and gives us another one to root for in a less conventional but more realistic sense.
Consider how blessed we've been this year, not only with Wonder Woman, but Atomic Blonde, Beatriz at Dinner, Wind River, Colossal, Girls Trip, The Beguiled, and The Glass Castle all featuring superb performances by a variety of actresses of different races and varying degrees of comedic and dramatic leverage. To add to the mix is Danielle Macdonald, who plays Patricia Dombrowski in Patti Cake$. Out of all the performances in those previously noted films, Macdonald might just give the most earnest and realistic performance; at least one that has the power to resonate with those who choose to give the film the time of day.
Patricia, who prefers to go by her stage-names "Patti Cake$" or "Killa P," is a plus-sized, ambitious twentysomething with grand ambitions to be a successful rapper. Hailing from an unremarkable working class neighborhood in New Jersey, P has been writing rhymes and killer verses in several dozen notebooks for years, working alongside her pharmacist friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). Both P and Jheri have big dreams of ditching New Jersey, especially P, who is getting sick of working as a bartender to watch her irresponsible mother Barb (Bridget Everett) get sloppy drunk each night to come home to watch her Nana (Cathy Moriarty) succumb to her terminal cancer.
Although P hasn't recorded any of her raps, she finds the perfect producer in "Basterd" (Mamoudou Athie), a scream-metal performer with a plethora of tricks up his sleeves. With a fake-eye, several piercings, and a unique ear for music, Basterd resides in a dilapidated abode deep in the woods known as "The Gates of Hell," which will serve as the production studio for P and Jheri. With Nana's help, the group becomes "PBnJ," dropping their first mixtape while starving for success on the underground circuit in the form of strip-club shows and doing anything for a chance at a big break.
Macdonald's character embodies everything noble about the average working class woman, young or old. We see P very cognizant that her future doesn't hold a lot for her if she sits idly by for even a second, seeing herself not only physically resembling her mother but symbolically representing the failed ambition of a performer. Bills get harder to pay as Nana's condition worsens, prompting P to take another job as a caterer/event-planner on top of bartending on top of trying to pursue a music career with middling success. The weight on this young woman's shoulders is communicated sympathetically rather than pitifully, showing Macdonald's fearless character as a force to be reckoned with when the going gets tough.
After an impromptu battle-rap session that riles the feathers of another basement rapper, we see P and Jhrei at a diner afterwards when P is sad about some of the disses that were tossed her way. Jheri implores that it was just a battle-rap session, and he is indeed correct on some level, but P's appearance has been an albatross all her life it seems. People look at an overweight white girl that is pursuing a rap career and feel they have her figured out from the start without even needing to hear her music or how she can destroy a beat with choice lines and metaphors. She has never been taken seriously, and this film offers a look at her to tell her story rather than others telling it for her.
Macdonald does all her own stunts here, going as far as to utilize the film's soundtrack as a haven for her exclusive and original music. Her rhymes are memorable and compliment her feisty attitude all the more, summarized keenly by what she tells herself in the mirror before she goes on-stage to perform. "You got this," she whispers as she kisses her fingers and presses them on the mirror. "You boss bitch."
Patti Cake$ is also a strong showcase for a plethora of actors you've never heard of - the most recognizable face for most will solely be MC Lyte in a cameo appearance. On top of Bridget Everett's tragic character being played, again, not for cheap sympathy but for realistic dreams-turned-nightmares, Mamoudou Athie plays enigmatic with a lot of promise as well. His "Basterd" character says very few words, but simply put, he's a worthy "B" in the musical quartet, able to put his buttery groove onto a track by stripping down his cacophonous metal beats to something admirably basic that instigates a lot of good vibes.
Finally, it's reasonable to assume Jasper and cinematographer Federico Cesca took a hint from Argentinian film director Gaspar Noé. Patti Cake$ is hyper-stylized without appearing as if it's a mish-mash of hand-picked colors vomited on-screen. Certain scenes, such as the first time P smokes weed and when she goes on to meet one of her rap idols, are marked by some terrific choices in colors, cinematography, and editing (courtesy of Brad Turner) that show commitment to making the film not another by-the-numbers story told in a very linear fashion. It's all gorgeous and grimy, rendering such a combination possible.
Patti Cake$, in my opinion, is destined to be the unseen crowd-pleaser to end the summer. Prove me wrong.
Steve's Grade: A-