There’s nothing particularly surprising about the story of Patti Cake$. If you’ve seen the trailers for Geremy Jasper’s film, about an overweight poor girl from Jersey with dreams of hip hop superstardom, you pretty much know what you’re getting when you buy the ticket. It’s an underdog story, a story about following your dreams and a story about misfits banding together and finding their tribe. We’ve all seen those movies, right?
Of course we have, but you don’t always need daring narrative innovations to reach greatness. There are a lot of things in Patti Cake$ that you might see coming, but that doesn’t dull the emotional punch of this gem of a film one bit. Thanks to a playful visual style, extraordinary cast and overall heartwarming vibe, this is the kind of movie we need in 2017.
“Patti Cake$” is Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald), a young girl with a hip hop obsession and the tremendous burden of trying to pay off her Nana’s (Cathy Moriarty) massive medical bills. Her mother (Bridget Everett), a singer whose ambitions have long-since been crushed by alcoholism, relies on Patricia to bring home the lion’s share of the family’s income. So she works multiple jobs and spends most of her time at home as a caretaker. In between, though, Patricia becomes “Killa P,” an emcee with incredible lyrical skill who longs to throw herself into the hip hop world with her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). When more traditional methods of cutting a demo fail them, Patti and Jheri turn to Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a quiet and antisocial musician who happens to be the only person they know with free recording equipment. With a hype man and a producer suddenly at her back, Patti will risk everything to finally chase her dream, including the ire of her hip hop idols.
There are, obviously, plenty of parallels here to other underdog stories. You can see 8 Mile here, and Precious and Finding Forrester and countless others. Jasper’s challenge, then, is to venture into this familiar territory and find a signature to set Patti Cake$ apart. That begins with an amusing and uplifting visual style that blends the grit of working-class Jersey with Patti’s waking dreams of hip hop glamor and excess. One moment you’re watching our hero confront bullies who mock her weight and the next her feet are leaving the ground as she’s transported to a music video of her own making. The contrast between the real and fantasy world is both visually delightful and increasingly more meaningful as the film goes on. The closer she gets to her dreams, the more the fantasies fade and reality sets in. It’s a device Jasper uses to underline the setbacks of his story but also to build and build the film up to its climactic heights. By the time the film’s over the two styles have somewhat blended, creating something triumphant. It elevates the film beyond any sense of being another garden variety story about following your dreams.
Jasper’s visual style is matched, and ultimately even topped, by an extraordinary set of original songs by Jasper and Jason Binnick. When Patti finally opens her mouth and unleashes her rhymes and Basterd’s unusual production kicks in, you get the sense that you’re watching something organic and special happening.
So, a distinctive visual style and incredible music elevate the film, but nothing else elevates it quite like Macdonald. If Patti Cake$ is missing anything, it’s deeper stories for characters like Jheri and Basterd, but that’s only because Jasper chose to zoom in so deliberately and powerfully on Patti. Macdonald’s incredible depth and soul holds the entire film together, but she’s not alone. Dhananjay, Athie, Moriarty and most impressively Everett all turn in gorgeous performances. It may sound saccharine, but you get the sense while watching this film that every single member of this cast really believes in it. That makes it through the screen and creates a lifeline that Jasper nurtures and never, ever severs.
There are a lot of things in Patti Cake$ that you might see coming well before they happen. You also might know a bottle of fine wine will be delicious before you ever pop the cork. It doesn’t lessen the impact. The cast, the creators and the level of detail built into this uplifting, scrappy little movie will captivate you. In a world full of isolation and division and fear, Patti Cake$ is a warm embrace. It’s a powerful story of what happens when people on the fringes find each other and make something amazing. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of film we all need right now.
Patti Cake$ opens August 18.