Patricia Dombrowski, aka Patti Cakes aka Killa P, hates the town she lives in. She’s taking care of her grandma and working to help her mum make ends meet. But she’s got a dream that keeps her writing in the notebook when she’s not serving customers: she wants to become a rapper and get out of New Jersey. And as we all know, becoming an artist isn’t at all easy: yet, she assembles a band with a goth producer, a loyal friend and her grandma to grind her way to the stardom while working part-time at a deserted bar.
It’s always more impactful for a person when the story they see on the big screen closely remain theirs, or the stories of people that you used to see hanging out behind the local off-license. If you ever read my hot takes on Twitter, you know I can get overexcited about a film, but I’m trying my best to be objective here, okay? Okay. Don’t come for me.
Now, the underdog story is such a typical framing for film or literature that it’s far too easy to fall into the trap of what’s been previously done. However, with fresh performances and some gritty characterisation, it doesn’t become a painful trope. Danielle Macdonald depicts the struggle of bullying and fighting on despite little support from the closest environment. Fighting her own demons is Bridget Everett’s character as Barb in a splendid, candid performance. Siddharth Dhananjay as Jherri is honestly hilarious as her best friend who’s got her back no matter the situation. And one of the best is Mamoudou Athie as the goth producer: he’s totally fascinating as a quiet, artistic, mysterious persona from the indie scene.
What’s particularly powerful about the film is the mother-daughter connection that’s essentially at the centre of the plot. Barb remembers the old good times when she got to perform, but she doesn’t see her daughter ever doing the same; subconsciously, she might be protective of her, remembering her own story. And there’s a lot of tension between her and Patti sometimes: her daughter demands her to stop drinking when she takes three shots without stopping for a second and guilt-trips her into “not wanting her mother to have a good time”. On the other hand, she can’t be fully supportive of Patti’s dream, as its elusiveness has burned her before. And it all gains the extra impact in the finale that’s a tear-jerking tribute to overcoming the hardships planted on your way by things that you can’t always control.
The film doesn’t dodge the dangerous grounds completely. We never understand what its position on Patti being a “culture vulture” is. The mention of cultural appropriation arrives in the film but is never quite given an answer. It does appear at some point in a mother-daughter argument again, without a reverberating comeback either. What we can deduct for the rest of the film is that music that Patti can relate to gives her motivation to pursue her dreams, and everything that she does is the effect of pure adoration rather than just purely wanting to profit from it and undermine the others’ work. If that was the director’s intention, it should have been supported much more strongly along the way.
What’s more, for the film about music, the lines spat in the rap battles and on stage feel pretty tame. Realistically, her music would never make it surrounded the stuff by contemporary rappers, and it does feel like this crucial element could’ve been so much better. You leave the cinema wishing that Patti actually got bars.
The cinematography is psychedelic from the opening scene – and when we get the levitation moments and a lot of green smoke as the film progresses, we begin to appreciate the connection between the candid portrayal of the real life and unapologetically strange daydreams that Patti experiences. What we see is the daily reality of small town life along the grand visions of massive performances that are weird and impactful. They provide the necessary contrast and underline the distance that the girl needs to overcome to get the recognition she deserves.
While Patti Cake$ succeeds at telling the small-town story of the hustle in a relatable manner, it’s the family interactions that carry the most weight in this film. Stumbling into a couple of dangerous territories, it never reveals its position on the issues it’s just bumped into; and it’d be edgier and fresher if some actual rap music was incorporated into the film. Rich in irony and candid in its observations, it does miss a beat from time to time, but it’s mostly an enjoyable story of rags-to-riches that conveys enough uniqueness to sparkle between similar stories.
Patti Cake$ opens in the UK cinemas on the 1st of September.