“Fuck this town,” Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) declares with a stiff middle finger just before the title card drops. She’s 23, presumably didn’t go to college, and is taking care of her grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) while navigating a difficult relationship with her immature mother (Bridget Everett), a singer who had to abandon her dreams of stardom to raise her daughter. They’re all stuck in working-class Bergen County, New Jersey, where she and her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) keep trying to dream a way out. They’ve got talent that might just be their ticket to a better life, but they only have a vague idea of what to do with it.
This is far from the first time I’ve pointed out how familiar a movie seems; if I was a little more popular, I’m sure it’d become an in-joke at this point. For Patti Cake$, the obvious touchstones are Peter Yates’ Breaking Away, Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, and Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow. But if it feels familiar, it’s because—just like those movies—the story is a retelling of The American Dream, the idea that something can come from nothing, an idea that endures despite increasing evidence that it might be little more than a fantasy these days. Writer/Director Geremy Jasper doesn’t shy away from this; near the beginning of the movie, Patti drives to work listening to Springsteen’s “The Time That Never Was,” a recently-released outtake from his seminal 1980 album The River. Not only is Springsteen the supposed poster child of The Dream, the song itself is about working for a new life and (as implied by the title) being fueled by something that never really existed.
Here’s the thing, though: The story may be familiar, but, for starters, the cast for it is so unconventional that it already might as well be fresh. You see, Patti, who goes by the name Killer P, is an obese white woman who wants to be a rapper. And good lord can that woman spit fire.
There’s a cheap, shitty joke to be made about Danielle Macdonald’s “presence.” While there’s certainly something to be said about the image of a woman whose type is normally relegated to “the funny fat friend” dropping legit bars, Macdonald’s command of the screen cannot simply be chalked up to her weight. I had the pleasure of seeing her intense, layered performance in Amy Berg’s Every Secret Thing, and she approaches this role with an even greater sense of care. She refuses the temptation to coast as a stereotypical force of nature a la Rebel Wilson and carefully builds a boisterous yet thoughtful, talented, and even sensitive character—long before anyone else in the film acknowledges Patti’s weight or her unfortunate nickname “Dumbo.” Macdonald is pure talent; I can’t wait to see her on screen again.
The image of a skinny Indian dude like Dhananjay’s Jheri playing the Nate Dogg to Patti’s Warren G is another one that stays with you. Dhananjay’s an awesome foil for Macdonald, pushing her forward when she’s too caught up in her self-doubt. Occasionally the results are a little reckless, and it’s here where the talent of Jasper as a writer starts to come through. Any time Patti and Jheri pursue a path that’s littered with convention and stereotypes, they get smacked down. The first time they try to lay down a track, it’s out of a run-down studio that operates as a market during the day. But it’s still lit in neon colors and weed’s getting passed around liberally. Patti gives in to peer pressure and takes her first ever hit just before going into the booth. It doesn’t go well.
It only starts to click when she meets Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), who winds up being Patti’s love interest. Basterd is a black punk-rock satanist who expresses himself through speed metal. When Patti meets him, he’s playing to a dozen-deep crowd at the local VFW, most of whom are giving him the finger, and despite his thick skin and punk-rock proclivities, he turns out to be chronically shy—so, not exactly the first person that comes to mind when a group goes looking for a DJ/producer. It takes a little work for Patti to convince Basterd to help her out, but when he does, magic happens; the sequence that follows is a fantastic cinematic breakdown of the creative process, where a bunch of disparate recordings and elements come together into this banger of a single I embedded above.
On the whole, Geremy Jasper—who also wrote all the songs featured in this movie—introduces himself as someone to watch in his debut, establishing interesting dynamics on the page and then leaning into them with flat-out mythological imagery behind the camera. Everyone with a dream has a hero, an idol that they aspire to and seek the approval of; for Patti, it’s O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), looking every bit the “Rap Superstar” stereotype down to the jeweled grills. A solid five minutes of thought will suggest that Patti really isn’t meant to follow his path, but the sway he holds over the public, and Patti in turn, is undeniable. His symbol is based off the Illuminati’s mark, and Jasper constantly shoots him through envious green filters and lights, at the occasional low angle for good measure. (Ngaujah only gets one scene to do something other than be Patti’s fantasy or look imposing, one scene to fully earn the gravity his character presumes to convey, and he crushes it.)
This would all seem like overdirecting in lesser hands, but Jasper and his DP Federico Cesca cut the power of that imagery by shooting mostly handheld. Now, handheld tends to be short form for “gritty and real,” and certainly, Patti and her crew lead hardscrabble lives, captured with a strong sense of verisimilitude. But combined with a bright, varied color palate, some creative editing from Brad Turner, and a strong eye for detail (the camera isn’t afraid to use zooms to briefly highlight points of interest within the scene), the handheld feels less like a shortcut and more like a natural expression of the myth Jasper is retelling, seamlessly conveying the feeling of Patti and her crew having to make up the rules as they go along.
“Retelling” is a critical word here. When you take away the slick direction, the unique makeup of the leads, and their excellent performances, it’s fair to argue that Jasper hasn’t done anything unique or special with the basic blueprint laid out by the movies that came before. I admit, I’m way more forgiving of this particular sin than others would be, but I’d argue that it’s the slick direction, the unique makeup of the leads, and their excellent performances that make this movie, far more than its actual plot. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be told a fresh story, and those who insist on it may want to pass here. But in this particular instance, they’ll be missing the chance to get in on the ground floor of some promising talent.
And make no mistake, as strong as the movie is on its own, there is a hell of a lot of promise on display in Patti Cake$.