Twentysomething Patricia Dombrowski — a.k.a. Killa P, Patti Cake$ — lives in a grubby house in Bayonne, N.J., with her boozy mom and sick grandma, and tends bar in a dive. But she has goals: Get out, and do it using her rapping skills. That’s the hope, anyway, in Geremy Jasper’s winning debut feature, Patti Cake$, which follows Patti’s modest journey from nobody to somebody.
With her buddy Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay), Patti (Australian actress Danielle Macdonald) puts together a tape, with help from musically gifted oddball Basterd (Mamoudou Athie) and Patti’s Nana (Cathy Moriarty). It’s a quixotic pursuit, but her lyrics are sharp, as is her delivery. Yet she knows the biggest thing preventing her success is the one thing she can’t change: She’s an overweight white girl trying to break into an entertainment business that demands she look otherwise. (The jerks call her “Dumbo” and “White Precious.”) But Patti’s got heart — as much as she’s defeated by being dismissed, it’s also what drives her.
Yet her tough Jersey-girl exterior barely masks a lot of hurt and vulnerability, much of it stoked by her mom, Barb (Bridget Everett), who has her own busted show-biz dreams. But Patti Cake$ is heartfelt and generous to its characters. Barb is a difficult, infuriating mom, but your heart breaks for her, too. (I would watch a series about just these two women getting by, noting that everyday fraught mother-daughter relationships are universal, yet criminally unexplored in entertainment.)
Patti Cake$ gets how performance functions as a temporary yet powerful escape from one’s dreary life. It’s not just Patti’s big dreams of rapping alongside her famous idols — it’s Hareesh beat-boxing in the fluorescent-lit tedium of his drug-store job; it’s Barb, still belting out Heart songs for half-a-dozen drunks at the bar; it’s the middle-aged cop with his weekend rock band; and it’s Basterd, shrieking his rage at the open-mic night. Even Nana finds that rapping is more fun than another stultifying afternoon of daytime TV.
The film follows the standard trajectory of similar yearning-for-stardom tales — and comparisons to other bootstrap musical stories like The Commitments, Hustle & Flow and 8 Mile are fair — but it stays fresh. (You’ll either love the “magical” nature of Basterd and his art cabin, or find it jarring set against the grittier life-is-grind aspects of the film.) It helps that Jasper keeps the tale grounded: Patti may dream of stardom, but the “big break” she’s aiming for is only a minor rap battle in Newark. Realistically, her goal there is less a true career than a validation of her worthiness — for herself and to others.