Boy do I love this movie.
Patti Cake$ is an optimistic Fish Tank, a hopeful Whiplash, a Jersey girl Once, a less rapey Saturday Night Fever. It’s joyous and hilarious and wildly depressing. And you should see it at the earliest possible opportunity.
It’s about a girl living a crushingly depressing life, whose mother is a vividly awful piece of work, whose grandmother is slowly dying, and who is expected to pay the household bills as a dive-bar bartender. It’s about that girl dreaming of getting the fuck outta “dirty Jersey,” about her and her friend/musical collaborator/local pharmacist propping each other up through the dreariness of their day-to-day lives, about societal outsiders finding love and companionship with one another, and about what it means to be an artist.
Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) lives in a shithole of a New Jersey town. She bartends and waits tables to support her mom (Bridget Everett) and Nana (Cathy Moriarty), and, in her spare time, she freestyle raps with her friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). She always has a notebook with her, scribbling new lyrics whenever she has a free second at work or at home. She loves rapping, gets true joy from it, and she’s good at it to boot. Jheri’s always trying to convince her to record one of her songs, to try and get on the radio, to do something with her talent, but she’s convinced that she’s stuck in Jersey for life. It doesn’t help that her washed-up singer of a mother says things like “you don’t have a musical bone in your body, and you sure as hell can’t sing.”
Danielle Macdonald. She’s out-of-this-world good in the titular role. Funny, loveable, skilled, sympathetic, endearing, tragic. Patricia Dombrowski is an archetype that exists in the real world. She’s not an archetype that we ever ever ever see as the protagonist in a major motion picture. It would have been tragic if whoever was cast as Patti was anything short of perfect in the role. Macdonald isn’t short of perfect. There’s very little else to say. She’s amazing.
If one role in this movie was miscast, the whole movie would fall apart. While this is far and away Macdonald’s movie, I’d say the most crucial bit of casting is that of Dhananjay as Jheri. You’ve gotta believe in his friendship with Patti, in his positive spirit, in his faith that Patti is going to make it out of Jersey one day. Dhananjay is supernaturally charming in the film. The filmmakers struck gold when they found this guy. For real. He’s just wonderful.
There’s a character who comes into play midway through the film, whose arc I refuse to spoil by saying much of anything here about him. His name is Basterd the Antichrist. Basterd the Antichrist is played by Mamoudou Athie, who rules in this movie. He’s able to oscillate from weird to romantic and back again in a way that so fits the character, I can’t imagine anyone else playing Basterd the Antichrist. Honestly, I can’t imagine anyone other than Macdonald and Dhananjay playing Patti and Jheri either.
So much of my affection for these actors and their performances is due to the truly lovely material they’ve been given. The characters are well-rounded and distinct, consistent and strong. Lots of low-budget Sundance indies about the lives of sad people in dead-end towns have rote characters, tired storylines, indistinct characterization, etc. Not Patti Cake$. I can barely remember a movie with three leads as original and well-crafted as Patti, Jheri, and Basterd (the Antichrist).
Patti Cake$ is a prime example of a low-budget movie that knows instinctively what many of its peers seem determined to ignore: that film is a visual medium, and that even in the most mundane of locations (say… Bergen County, New Jersey) a good director is capable of crafting extraordinarily exciting imagery. Microbudget be damned.
And judging by this, his first feature film, Geremy Jasper is a good fucking director.
There are concert-set dream sequences full of neon-tinged, theatrical stage fog. Rush-inducing dolly shots of Patti walking down pharmacy aisles. A sense of joy throughout. An unmistakable rhythm to all the film’s dialogue and imagery.
On that last point: Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver was the recipient of universal acclaim due to Wright’s clever (and, at times, exhilarating) juxtaposition of image and soundtrack. Patti Cake$, as far as I’m concerned, is a wildly more interesting example of same. It’s also a superior movie. I can only dream that it’s seen by as many people.
A performance that I have yet to discuss: Bridget Everett’s as Barb, Patti’s mom. Everett is so good here, playing a really vile character. Barb is abusive, self-obsessed, mean, alcoholic, and many other bad things that a parent shouldn’t be. After she bullies Patti into providing her with her umpteenth drink of the night at the bar, Barb takes the shot and declares that “blood is thicker than Jäger” (one of my favorite lines of dialogue from Patti Cake$). Barb has her fingers wrapped around Patricia, she knows exactly how to manipulate and hurt her daughter, and Everett isn’t holding back one smidge. She’s in full-on broken-person mode. It’s a big performance, but a grounded one — Everett is yet another perfectly-cast member of the Patti Cake$ cast.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s music. From the beginning of the movie, when Patti and Jheri are just sitting around her car, freestyling (in a very 8 Mile scene), to later scenes where there’s an actual beat behind their rhymes, the songs are catchy and speak directly to the movie’s central themes and story. One of the worst things a movie can do is have an artist character who everyone calls a genius, but who is very clearly not all that great at what they do. Patricia Dombrowski is a genuinely talented lyricist. I can’t wait for the Patti Cake$ soundtrack to hit the Interwebs.
I can’t recommend this movie highly enough. It’s a heartwarming rags-to-maybe-riches-one-day-hopefully story that centers on characters who are new and unique and exciting. It will, fingers crossed, launch the careers of some truly talented people: Danielle Macdonald, Geremy Jasper, Siddharth Dhananjay, and Mamoudou Athie. Its pitch-perfect all the way through. I can’t wait to see it again when it hits theaters on August 18th.