Patti Cake$ starts with a fever dream. Living a life of quiet desperation in Bayonne, New Jersey, Patricia Dombrowski – played by the fresh-faced Australian actor Danielle Macdonald – dreams of being an all-star MC. Christening herself Killa P, Dombrowski’s life is one filled with personal and economic toil and turmoil that tempers her otherworldly dreams against a stark reality. Forced to singlehandedly keep a roof over her own head – in addition to those of her boozing and promiscuous mother (Bridget Everett) and her terminally ill grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) – Patti dreams of being welcomed into an emerald paradise presided over by local hip hop legend O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah).
Aided in her pursuit by best friend and local pharmacist Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), Patti immediately establishes her talents to the viewer in several instances of intimate oratorical verse. Unfortunately for Patti, the local rap community is dominated by chauvinism, with her immediate contemporaries more than willing to denigrate her talents on the grounds of weight and gender.
Derisively referred to as “Dumbo,” Patti is denied entry into a world that she would otherwise rule, if it weren’t for the biological circumstances of her birth. Nevertheless, Patti Cake$ seeks to celebrate her modest triumphs, which culminate in a climactic live performance that results in her receiving her first mainstream radio hit.
Like many other independent features that takes place in New Jersey, Patti Cake$ is dominated by the pervasive shadow of New York. The local residents of Bayonne all might wish to trade in their blue collar despair for the bright lights of the Big Apple, and Patti is no different. Struggling to get by as a part-time party caterer, Patti spends the rest of her waking hours dreaming up new rap verses alongside Jheri, listening to her favorite O-Z LP, and failing to impress anyone in the local rap scene.
In its best moments, writer and director Geremy Jasper delivers a feature length debut that teems with the kind of optimism and ambition that feels more than perfectly suited to the likes of a character like Patti. In its lesser moments, Patti Cake$ stumbles over more than a few scenes and characters who blatantly serve to move the plot along an entirely predictable trajectory. When Patti finally meets O-Z (Ngaujah) in person, the great and powerful recording artist accuses of her cultural appropriation. Thankfully, her late second act trial is bested with the help of Bastard (Mamoudou Athie), a resident anarchist guitar player whose convenient personal politics serve to uplift Patti at all the right moments.
Thankfully, the rest of the movie flows so effortlessly that characters like O-Z and Bastard are never given too much screen time, and Patti is given center stage to fully come into her own as a rising MC. And peppered throughout are several intimate exchanges with her mother Barb Dombrowski (Everett), whose own shattered dreams as a washed-up hair metal singer serve to add further definition to her daughter’s comparative talents. Cathy Moriarty also shines as Nana, Patti’s grandmother and the reluctant fourth member of her ad hoc rap group PBNJ.
Early in the film, Patti takes a walk along the dilapidated streets of her economically impoverished Bayonne, NJ neighborhood. Thankfully, with her walkman in hand, O-Z playing on full blast through the headphones, and not a care in the world, she quickly ascends towards the emerald clouds of her favored fever dream, only to come hurtling back to earth when a car pulls up behind her and its driver breaks the spell of fantasy by spouting the noxious epithet “Dumbo.”
It’s easy to see why Patti Cake$ was such a hit following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this past January. After securing the attention of several prominent art house distributors – including Focus Features, Neon, The Orchard, and Annapurna Productions – Jasper’s mainstream debut found a home at Fox Searchlight Pictures. Joining the ranks of such indie blockbuster hits of yesteryear as Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and the forthcoming awards season contender Battle of the Sexes, Patti Cake$ is on course to becoming another feel-good indie gem years after its initial theatrical run.
Patti Cake$: Conclusion
Jasper has really done something special in writing and directing Patti Cake$. Macdonald is a revelation as the young white MC from Bayonne, NJ, and with any luck Jasper’s film will soon join the ranks of such iconic New Jersey films as Clerks, The Station Agent, and Garden State. New York City looms large on the minds of many of the film’s characters, but the city’s shadow falls across the industrial sprawl of North Jersey in a way that serves to define the film’s specific regional tone.
Setting out to track the cultural influence of hip hop, Patti Cake$ spits more than a few noteworthy verses. Macdonald – who before the start of filming was entirely unfamiliar with how to rap – shines as the newly christened MC Patti Cake$ by film’s end, and in the film’s upbeat celebration of her talents it’s easy to become a fan of the fictional recording artist.
It will be exciting to see where Jasper turns next, as Patti Cake$ is a noteworthy feature length production that should draw more than a few fans to the young filmmaker’s camp of primary supporters. Regardless of how many viewers went out to see the film in theaters late last month, Patti Cake$ is the true sleeper hit of the 2017 summer movie season, and here’s to hoping that it continues to build momentum as it makes its way to home video.
Do you have a favorite movie that takes place in New Jersey? Did you manage to see Patti Cake$ this summer movie season?
Patti Cake$ saw theatrical release in the U.S. on August 18, 2017. Find international release dates here.
Sean K. Cureton
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