The lived-in excellence of “Patti Cake$”

Danielle Macdonald and Siddharth Dhananjay in Patti Cake$

“Patti Cake$,” a 2017 film about an overweight white woman’s quest to become a rap star in the slums of New Jersey has garnered immediate comparisons to “Hustle & Flow” and “8 Mile”. This is not all that unsurprising. Those two films are the immediate benchmarks of rap as an inspirational tool on film. And, “Patti Cake$,” narratively, does not depend necessarily on being something wholly different, so the comparisons, at first glance, seem to be insignificant. Still, this Fox Searchlight film, initially shown in January at the Sundance Film Festival, is markedly different from those two rap films and the usual inspirational competition films. As much as “Patti Cake$” suggests the familiar, the centre of this film is distinctly, refreshingly, new.

Patricia Dombrowski (the eponymous Patti) lives with her single mom, an alcoholic, and her ailing grandmother. She works in a bar and lives a generally squalid life, counting pennies for overdue bills. Her only solace is the rap music she listens to, and writes with her friend Jheri. The ostensible unusualness of this heavyset white woman spitting bars is, perhaps, the film’s only real hurdle. On the surface, it’s hard to take seriously. Characters in the film say as much. But even though “Patti Cake$” is often comedic, the film itself never mocks Patti’s aspirations. It’s a key part of what makes it work. Patti’s gender and her body issues are key aspects of the things this film is distilling, and that significantly identifies it as something unusual in mainstream cinema. It is very important that Patti’s story is different from those other two rap stories because she is a woman. Her femininity is an important part of the context; her femininity as someone outside the expected parameters of female celebrity is even more important.

As a musical, then, “Patti Cake$” depends significantly on its music, and director/writer Geremy Jasper, in his debut film, delivers. Patti’s raps are not Missy Elliot-level, but they are strong and self-aware. She’s rapping about her weight, about her minimum wage life, and about her down and out mother. “Patti Cake$” does not shy away from the things that are ugly, but it impresses by never wallowing in the ugliness either.

It’s important for contemporary films to feel lived in and although this version of America is one that’s rarely seen, nothing about “Patti Cake$” feels fraudulent or insincere. This world feels lived in, it feels visceral, the struggles cut deep and the performances ring true. It’s an almost incidental thing to consider when we’re thinking about a world of superheroes and fantasy, but what makes “Patti Cake$” so significant is that it does not confuse contemporary realism with the miserablist. These characters are poor, their lives are often tough, and they are often tough on each other, but one thing that representations of poverty so often get wrong is that poor persons are not constantly thinking about their lack of money. They are living their lives, interacting with each other, surviving in any way they can. In one of my favourite cuts, Patti’s mother sings a spectacular karaoke of Heart’s “These Dreams” (no, the film is not subtle with its musical cues) and as she sings the first chorus the film cuts immediately to a shot of her throwing up in the bar a few hours later. It’s a very simple cut, but the juxtaposition of the squalor with the aspirations is something that makes “Patti Cake$” resonate so much for me.

Danielle McDonald, an Australian actress, makes her American debut as Patti and she’s excellent. Charming, alluring, fun, funny. All the character needs. On the edges of the film, though, is a towering performance from cabaret singer Bridget Everett as her mother, Barb. The role is a difficult one, both villain and saviour but Everett astounds both for her excellent singing and the intrepid way she approaches her scenes. It is great work and, hopefully, proves a career turning point for her. The cast beyond these two women is good. Siddharth Dhananjay as Patti’s quipping best friend and Mamoudou Athie as a tentative love-interest are playing less incisive roles, but they do well with them. And McDonald is excellent interacting with them all.

But “Patti Cake$” feels larger than the big dreams of its protagonist. When I finished watching it earlier this week, I felt exuberant in a way I hadn’t felt a while watching a 2017 film. This year has seen some good films, great ones even, but the general tone has been more sobering than exultant in the best of them. In a way I can see how the shameless positivity of “Patti Cake$” might belie its profundity. This is a film that feels necessary for 2017, though. “Patti Cake$” argues for the importance of the things that are familiar, lived in and regular. The actors get it, the writing gets it, and the original rap songs penned for the film get it. I believed every word.

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