Patti is twice the woman Amy Schumer will ever be. She’s a big, young blonde Jersey gal living a poor person’s life but dreaming of being a big-time rapper. Can she—who is loved by few and dissed by many—rhyme her way to fame and fortune? That’s what moviegoers will find out if they take a chance on this endearing film by first-time filmmaker Geremy Jasper.
Twenty-three-year-old Patricia Dombrowski, a.k.a. Patti Cake$, a.k.a. Killa P. (Danielle Macdonald), is the Iggy Azalea, only nicer, of Nowhere New Jersey. It’s a town just north of Should-have-left-town-a-long-time-ago NJ, which is east of Loserville and just off exit Why-did-you-come-here? on the New Jersey turnpike. Her sleepy village is a filled with strip malls, fast food restaurants and lost aspirations. In her multitude of MTV-like daydreams she is a queen-size rapper. In realty, she’s held back by deep insecurities and the elusive big break.
Patti’s best friend and biggest booster is Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), a young East Indian pharmacist, who’s been known to skim a couple of pills off the top. He’s an amateur hip-hop-soul singer himself. As Patti’s manager, PR rep and concert promoter, he’s always scheming. Little goes right for the mildly talented duo, until they hook up with a mysterious, Goth anarchist guitarist named “Basterd” (Mamoudou Athie, Jean of the Joneses), who plays his axe like Lenny Kravitz ODing on phenobarbital—edgy but so spaced out.
As the new musical trio, dubbed PBNJ, makes headway against the naysayers and haters, Patti has another problem. She lives in her mom Barb’s (Bridget Everette, Trainwreck) shadow. When Patti tends bar in a local pub on karaoke nights, her drunk mom stands in front of a mic belting bombastic pop/rock/blues. After her performances, when Barb is in the ladies’ room vomiting, it is Patti who holds her mom’s head up over the toilet bowl. Though she supports her mom emotionally and financially, Barb doesn’t reciprocate by backing her daughter’s rapper ambitions.
It’s an age-old ploy: Find an unlikely protagonist, in this case a full-figure girl who is tread upon (Precious). Give the character so many obstacles, demons and antagonists that there is no way to succeed (Rocky). Then watch the audience jump on board to turn a loser into a winner (Rudy).
Music video director Geremy Jasper marks his feature film debut with a well-planned and eccentric script that heaves so much crap onto Patti that you have to empathize with her. It’s surprising and refreshing that he has made a neurotic plump young woman, who is his alter ego, a focal point. Jasper fleshes out offbeat characters (a la Little Miss Sunshine) and builds expectations and dreams that audiences can latch onto.
Jasper directs the cast in a way that makes them heart-warming without being sentimental. He inventively finds ways to enliven Patti’s fantasies (she walks on air in one sequence). He also wisely makes most of Patti’s poetic rap lyrics very personal: “Call me a cow, but I ain’t going coward. Turn up the love.”
It is almost unimaginable that an Australian actress, Danielle Macdonald, could nail the persona of an outcast Jersey girl so well, but she does: 70% tortured soul 30% gutsy rapper. She wears that mantle of self-doubt deftly: Patti to her grandma Nana, “I f—ked up.” Nana: “What did you do?” Patti” I thought I could be someone.” And when Macdonald does rap, it’s obvious she will never be a Nicki Minaj, Lil’ Kim or Missy Elliot, but if she were that good, this wouldn’t be such an underdog movie.
Siddharth Dhananjay as her sidekick is so positive and sunny you have to take him in small doses. Mamoudou Athie’s plays the mystery guitarist like the musician Prince without a sense of humor; he’s enigmatic and forlorn. Everette’s Barb is a mom whose maternal instincts couldn’t be worse. Catherine Moriarty as Nana, Broadway’s Fela! star Sahr Ngaujah as Patti’s rap idol O-Z and guest appearances by hip hop legend MC Lyte and other musicians fill out a pivotal supporting cast.
The musical soundtrack (Jason Binnick) is breezy in a hip-hop sub’urban way. Scenes of low-income living in the Garden State, cheesy nightlife and O-Z’s opulent crib are evocatively photographed by cinematographer Federico Cesca and created by production designer Meredith Lippincott and art director Heather Yancey. While editor Brad Turner knows when to turn the lights out at 108 minutes.
White Men Can’t Jump? but white women can rap in this crowd pleaser.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.