For both fans and aspiring artists, music has always served as an escape from and a way to express feelings about life experiences. In the musical drama “Patti Cakes,” Geremy Jasper tells a gritty blue-collar Cinderella story about one girl’s relationship with rapping and how it frees her from a dysfunctional life.
23-year-old Patricia “Patti” Dumbrowski is a plus-size white girl with dreams of rap superstardom big enough to free her from her downtrodden New Jersey town. In this depressing place, the only people who believe in her rhyming abilities are her pharmacist best friend, Jheri, and her ill Nana. Patti is determined to avoid following in the footsteps of her mother, a former singer who blames parenthood for prematurely ending her career. Patti enlists the help of Basterd, a mysterious, fringe-living sound engineer, in making an EP. Together, the unlikely quartet of Patti, Basterd, Nana and Jheri, now known as “PBNJ,” works hard to give Patti a musical boost and hope for themselves in a cruel environment.
Though the film follows musical drama plot clichés, from the recording montage that concludes act one to the second act setbacks, what makes “Patti Cakes” worth admission is Danielle MacDonald’s performance in the title role. MacDonald is so believable as a Jersey-born girl who has rapped for most of her life that one might be flabbergasted to discover that she’s actually Australian and has never rapped before the film. The role is truly transformative for MacDonald. The swagger, the accent, the singing — the intense pre-production preparation pays off, as it all looks second nature for Patti. Cabaret singer Bridget Everett gives an equally strong performance as Patti’s regretful mother Barb, a woman so pained over her life choices that her preferred method of release is lashing out at her daughter. Siddharth Dhananjay plays Jheri as the best friend/collaborator anyone chasing a dream would want to share their journey with. Mamoudou Athie portrays the quietly anarchistic Basterd, an enigma whose mystery you don’t want to fully unravel for fear of losing something special. Cathy Moriarty elevates Nana above the wisecracking grandparent cliché. Nana’s unconditional support for her granddaughter stems from her disgust with her daughter’s abusive behavior. These familial relationships, more often alluded to than shown, are what make Nana irreplaceable in the PBNJ quartet. A dying woman in a dying town, Nana sees Patti’s journey as the last big adventure of her life.
In both the music and movie businesses of today, we often complain that everything lacks originality. While films may cover similar themes within the same genre, what distinguishes them from each other is how they tweak those familiar themes to fit their own worldview. Thanks to the magnificent breakthrough performance of its leading lady and some ridiculously good earworms (see the track “PBNJ”), “Patti Cakes” shines.
Patti Cake$ is playing now in theaters.