Review: Patti Cake$
A good chunk of rap music is about where and who the rapper is, or where and who the rapper wants to be. From the first moments of Patti Cake$, writer/director Geremy Jasper makes sure we understand who Patricia Dombrowski is, where she comes from, and where she’s going: she dreams of rap stardom, wakes up to a house short on money and stability, then walks down a street in her poor New Jersey neighborhood, imagining more.
Each part of this opening vignette contains rap, as do most scenes in the movie. The music gets steadily slicker and more personal as Patricia, going by the stage name “Killer P,” hones her craft. Australian Actress Danielle Macdonald seamlessly adapts her flow to fit each scene, rapping through a learned New Jersey accent. Beginning with Patricia, nearly every character is introduced through music. She raps to herself, about herself, even while brushing her teeth. She and her friend Jheri, a boy who works at the pharmacy, rap about each other and play the part of hip hop royalty in their heads. Another budding local artist, “Basterd,” enters their world with an earnest but ill-received death-metal set at a local club. Rival amateur rappers use their lyrics to mock Patricia’s weight, mercilessly. Even Patricia’s mom – a karaoke diva in the glam rock tradition – is characterized through music, but she uses to cudgel instead of connect with her daughter.
The movie follows the aspiring-artist template closely and without much emendation: a group forms and maybe breaks up, a lousy first gig creates drama and struggle, a bigger gig after that offers a shot at stardom. We’ve seen this arc before, but many of us have never seen people like Patricia, Jheri, and Basterd go through it. They’re white, brown, and black, respectively, and race plays a role in the script. So does Patricia’s weight, and the empathy we feel for her stems not from pity, but from anger at the way she’s treated. The movie feels timely and informed and empowering without lording its virtue over the audience, and without compromising its focus on the writing, production, and performance of homegrown rap music.
There’s a current of convenient sweetness to Patti Cake$ that makes it feel a little too tidy. Basterd, a goth philosophizer, compromises his values a little too quickly when they stand in the way of a plot point. Patricia’s grandmother, a comic relief character, provides some too-easy emotional releases. Her mother, powerfully acted by Bridget Everett, has moments that don’t feel right for the character. Instead of hitting some of the more predictable genre beats, Jasper might have used his experience directing music videos to punch up the film’s visuals, as he does in a handful of neat dream sequences.
Still, Patti Cake$ is a movie that’s easy to like, with characters who are easy to root for, and rap that’s easy to recognize as cool, creative, and heartfelt.