FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES (2017)
Director: Geremy Jasper
Starring: Danielle Macdonald, Siddharth Dhananjay, Mamoudou Athie, Bridget Everett, Cathy Moriarty
PBNJ. Not just a tasty sandwich anymore.
Ex-music video director Geremy Jasper delivers his feature film debut in the form of Patti Cake$, a story of an unlikely aspiring rapper‘s dream of making it to the big time and escaping the confines of her small New Jersey town. Sounds familiar? Probably does, there’s a lot here that’s been seen before but, crucially, the movie stands on its own and does so on its own terms.
Plus it’s very good.
Patti Dombrowski (Macdonald), aka Patti Cakes, aka Killa P, is overweight and unhappy – her mother prefers the drink to her daughter, her job in a deadbeat bar is a dead end and her nickname of ‘Dumbo’ hangs over her constantly. What she really dreams of is to make it big as a rapper. Her stacks of lyrics books attest to that. To live the high life across the river in New York and leave her troubles behind is Patti’s one goal. Her failed musician mother, Barb (Everett), makes no secret of her disgust at Patti’s life goals, only her loving Nana (Moriarty) shows any support. Sharing the vision is her MC friend, Jhen (Dhananjay), who wastes work hours at the pharmacy dreaming up schemes for riches. Seemingly, the world is against Patti’s dreams – she’s too fat, too ugly, too…white to succeed.
A chance meeting with anarchist musician Basterd the Antichrist (Athie) opens the floodgates of opportunity as within his hidden studio, Patti, Jhen and Basterd combine their talents to create PBNJ. Who’s the ‘N’ here? Nana - who lends her raspy tones to the debut track and becomes the fourth member of the crew. Fighting matriarchal oppression, dead-end jobs with minimal pay, the ‘sheep’ of New Jersey and popular perception, the members of PBNJ make their assault on the town in order to break out.
Not quite 8 Mile, not quite Hustle & Flow, not quite Rocky, Patti Cake$ is a good old underdog story centering around a curious protagonist daring to dream of a better life and following their passion – in this case (again), it’s rap music. The key protagonist this time is a large, ‘unattractive’ white girl, apparently not the typical image of a up-and-coming hip-hop star. It’s an interesting idea, allowing for themes of abuse and bullying as well as the standard ‘overcoming the odds’ direction – plus, the fact her bandmates are either Indian, black or elderly allows for some great diversity and ideas.
Newcomer Danielle Macdonald – very much Australian, by the way – delivers an electric performance as the wannabe-rapper providing angst, determination, emotion and vitriol in equal measures. Her scenes with her estranged mother are extremely well-acted and the overall performance is extremely good – not bad for your first attempt. The cast, in general, are all great, Siddharth Dhananjay is affable in his role and Mamoudou Athie smoulders like a dreadlocked, spaced out Adam Driver as the stunningly named Basterd the Antichrist – which may be my favourite name of 2017. There’s not a dull beat to be found.
The movie succeeds largely due to the fact the relationships between the characters are so well-written. There’s a believable and fun dynamic between Patti and Jhen, and her relationships with family members seem authentic and close. Patti Cake$ is a well-written movie, for all of the tropes that crop up (and there are many), the movie manages to side-step outright cliché for the most part (thankfully). The balance between levity and gravity is skilfully handled and keeps the movie grounded and genuine. The rhymes are clever, if simplistic at times, and come across well and the songs produced are catchy – the scenes of the first song being constructed are the best in the movie.
The cinematography and visuals are all well-shot - there's an unsurprising music video vibe during a lot of the scenes - and the washed out visuals of the town only further the point that Patti would be desperate to leave. There’s a retro feel at times and a glossy neon sheen at others, but it never looks dull.
The drawback of Patti Cake$ is the main narrative - it’s well-trodden and highly predictable. Though the movie swerves and twists through the expected story, and throws some much-needed authenticity in (especially during the third act), many of the beats have been used before, and in similar movies. That doesn’t affect the feelgood factor that the movie undoubtedly brings, however.
Fun, emotional, catchy and real, Patti Cake$ is a great movie and one that delivers top performances, eschewing the accepted image of leading roles perfectly. It’s a movie that’ll leave you humming and feeling great after, and that’s just fine by me.
November 9th 2017