LA Film Fest 2017: Patti Cake$, by David Bax
It may not be immediately clear to you, when watching Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$, that the movie is set in Northern New Jersey (it may take you as long as until the first Bruce Springsteen song shows up on the soundtrack to figure it out). But, thanks to Jasper’s firm command of tone and atmosphere, you’ll understand that you’ve set down in a place of scrappy strivers and bitter burnouts who are both inspired and intimidated by the shadow they live in. For what it’s worth, it takes place in Bayonne.
Patricia Dumbrowski (Danielle Macdonal) lives at home with her mother (Bridget Everett) and tends bar at night. In her free time, though, she dreams of hip-hop stardom with her friend Jerry (Siddharth Dhananjay), writing rhymes that she mostly performs just for herself in the bathroom mirror. That begins to change, though, when she meets a loner musician who calls himself Basterd (Mamoudou Athie). Patti, Jerry and Basterd, with some help from Patti’s ailing Grandma (Cathy Moriarty), form a group and hope to hustle their way to stardom.
Patti, it must be noted, is white. In fact, the hip-hop scene in their town (or at least the one they’re a part of) is almost entirely Caucasian. Jasper makes this conspicuous, especially early in the movie when the most prominent black face we see is the poster of a rapper hanging above her bed. How Patti feels about this is not specified but we get more than a couple glimpses at how other people react. A black rapper (Sahr Ngaujah) calls her a “culture vulture;’ her mother tells her to “act your race.” Even the other white (male) rappers never let her forget what she is. When they’re not calling her Dumbo, it’s White Precious.
Jasper’s frankness about this and other issues is what makes Patti Cake$ stand out. In many ways, it’s a conventional underdog story, a rehash of 8 Mile, which was already a rehash of Rocky. But even as he’s satisfyingly hitting those familiar beats, he’s adorning his movie with authenticity. The music Patti and her friends make is actually pretty good (as is the music on the soundtrack, including a stellar Bikini Kill needle drop). The debilitating cost of health care for poor folks is a motif. And, most refreshingly, this is the very rare movie that understands most people have to spend large parts of their day at work.
With its mix of edifying realism and movie fantasy, it eventually becomes clear what Patti Cake$ really is. It’s a legend, a myth, a fairytale. I mean, a hermit who builds a recording studio in an abandoned cabin the woods is exactly the kind of thing the Brothers Grimm would write today, isn’t it? And, like most such stories, you’ll likely be eager to return to this bunch of lovable misfits again and again.