Artists come from all backgrounds, some roots more humble than others. Such is the drive behind the central character in “Patti Cake$.” An overweight white girl in a dead end town, Patti Cakes (Danielle Macdonald) dreams of being a big rapper in the big city. The problem is no one sees her as more than “Dumbo Dumbrowski,” a disingenuous nickname given to her by the people in her town. From the first few scenes, one knows exactly how the movie will play out. In most ways, the film plays directly into the hands of expectations. Despite being as rote and cliche as many other indie films before it, the talented performers sell the words with such flair, the film comes alive.
Patricia Dombrowski, a.k.a. Killa P, a.k.a. Patti Cake$, wants so badly to escape her small town in New Jersey. An aspiring rapper, Patti writes incredible lyrics and has the talent to perform her work. However, constantly underestimated by the people in her life and town, Patti finds herself too nervous to perform. However, when a mysterious avant garde performer (Mamoudou Athie) in her town catches her eye, Patti gets inspired. She enlists her motormouth best friend, Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), so they can make a run at getting a demo out and pursuing their rap career.
MacDonald commands the screen from the opening moments and never gives it up. She’s a fantastic performer that knows how to deliver multiple notes with her beleaguered Patti. While in her day to day life, Patti exists as an unglamorized Cinderella. She unclogs toilets at the local bar she bartends at and takes care of her chain-smoking ailing Nana (Cathy Moriarty). However, every bit of her DNA seems recharged when she spits her lyrics. Even as she exhibits confidence, such as when she challenges a bully to a wrap battle, we still witness the hurt, scared human whose aches and pains pour into her lyrics. If nothing else, the film succeeds at being an interesting and heartwarming character piece.
The strong performances don’t end there. Simultaneously the most affecting and most cliche element of the film is Patti’s relationship to her mother, Barb, played by Bridget Everett. Barb once had promise as a singer, but got pregnant and her dreams shifted. Present day, Barb barely squeaks by on the bills, drinks heavily, lives to drunkenly dominate at bar karaoke, all while screwing anything in sight. A less deft performer would have just reveled in the train wreck that is Barb. Everett does a better job of signaling how Barb both cares for Patti, but not before taking care of her own selfish needs. There’s a strong beating heart beneath Barb that pays off by the end. However, one must delve through a few layers of filth to get there.
Despite having quite a bit of energy in the dialogue, the plot mechanisms could not be more standard. From misunderstanding parents, quirky Grandparents at death’s door, to a final “battle of the band (rappers),” there’s not a trope the script is afraid of ripping off. The formula works on a base level and allows more of the dialogue around the rap community to shine. However, it leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a certain lack of ambition in it, especially as the movie aims to give us more in terms of the characterization of Patti. If one sets their sights low and seeks to enjoy exactly the movie they expect, “Patti Cake$” really works.
As important to the film as the characters is the setting of Bergen County, New Jersey. The film represents how ambition can still be found among the lower class neighborhoods where people are struggling to stay afloat. From the local establishments to the people Patti’s age still in town, one sees how the town acts as a tar pit enveloping the members of its community and keeping them stuck in the town. It also further paints the stakes of how hard it is for Patti to leave and how a move of that magnitude is out of the question. Patti has a big heart and big dreams. This wide eyed ambition moves this from an average film to a really winning indie project.