Thoughts on Patti Cake$
I enjoy stories and movies like Patti Cake$. Saying something is authentic and real seems cliché but there is no other way to describe it. When characters seem real and not just fiction concocted in someone's head I consider that a successful story. I've never been to New Jersey and I'm not a connoisseur of rap. For this story it doesn't matter. Over Memorial Day weekend, I was transported to a small town where nothing much happens, opportunities are limited and all the characters dream about running away from. Even so the passion in Patti's eyes, even in the bathroom rapping under her breath, gives you hope something will happen within the next couple of hours. The spark in her eyes tells you no matter how this story ends she isn't going to lose that fire or give up easy.
This is a story that could be in a Bruce Springsteen song since it ranges from absolutely hopeless to unbelievable fortune. Stuck in a small town with few prospects escapism is necessary and many kids throw themselves into rap. Some are more well versed than others. Patti, played by Danielle Macdonald, is secretly brilliant and masterful at the rap game. She only opens up to her best friend Jheri, played by Siddharth Dhananjay, to display her skills and spit rhymes back and forth while watching the sun set behind the skyscrapers in the distance.
The local white boys think they are hot shit with basic lyrics probably borrowed heavily from other rap heavy weights. Posturing is easy when no one with real talent is around. Their rap group plays at the local VFW to a loyal group of screaming fans who happened to be their friends. Patti gets her chance to show off her skills when they are playfully rapping outside in a gas station parking lot afterwards. Staying on the sidelines, she scopes out the scene without joining in because one of the feeble white rappers is cute. But Jheri pushes her into the circle to show off her skills. Throughout the movie, she is constantly being underestimated and this time is no exception.
They have all grown up together so the hazing begins; calling her Dumbo because of her size and trying to intimidate her. She steps up anyway. The crowd is impressed, at least for a second, until her dream boy starts battling her saying awful things about her size and how he would never do anything sexually with her ever. You can see the pain in her eyes as each hurtful statement made, mostly for the mob, cuts deeper into her quickly retreating fantasy of the two of them ever being together. Patti almost leaves without making her own retort.
Jheri urges her to go hard. He knows she can bring the fire, cut him down to size and she does. When she's done he is genuinely insulted. He is bested in front of his friends and she tops it off by kissing him to further throw him off his guard or as a last resort. Which he responds to with a head butt to her face. Ouch. Old stereotypes and beliefs die hard and we see this guy and his crew throughout the film consistently insulting her since they can't believe she is better than them or that people can change.
Even though the story and characters are realistic there are still moments of fantasy which are compelling in their contrast to the real world. In Patti's day dreams about becoming OZ's protege, her rap idol, they are surrounded by green smoke and fog. The details aren't clear but the success is palpable. Another moment shows her getting lost in the music blasting through her headphones, walking down the street by rising into the clouds only to be brought back down to reality with the honking of a car. Great things are happening in these dreams but without clarity.
She befriends the lonely, weird boy, played by Mamoudou Athie, who lives in the woods and calls himself the Anti Christ, subtle, after hearing his music which is completely different from her own. It is filled with rage, pain and demands to be noticed. He doesn't seem to care what anyone thinks and she admires him for that strength even though he is timid and barely talks to her. Eventually she coaxes him into letting her record in his makeshift studio inside a rundown cabin. They are both considered outsiders in their insular community and bond quickly. When passing out flyers for their album drop, PBNJ, he warns her not to worship or follow false prophets referring to OZ.
By a stroke of luck Patti ends up working through her catering job at OZ's house. Obviously she is excited and thinks this must be her big break. Patti already has her demo recorded and just needs to drop it into his hands. While venturing down into the hallowed reaches of his house to give him an Absinthe cocktail she spits out a few lines behind him before handing him the drink, cautiously. He praises an abstract painting as true art portraying pain and other emotions worth at least the 2.4 million he paid for it. Is it because the creator was a man, that he sees himself in the work or he is filling his role as taste maker deeming this worthy of time and money?
She pours her heart, soul and verses out only to be called a culture vulture and dismissed. Meeting your idols rarely works out as imagined. The difference between the meeting two of her idols couldn't be more different. Her favorite DJ, who she meets while at her catering gig, is respectful and genuinely interested in talking to her giving advice without any subtle prodding. She isn't the same flashy success story as OZ but she has the humanity he desperately lacks.
Things start to spin out of control with everything going wrong for the eventual small victories to taste even sweeter as they are hard won in the end. Her mom, Barb, played by Bridget Everett brilliantly, takes the typical parent stance of rap not being music. As a failed musical performer years ago she is constantly trying to reclaim her glory days while mostly succeeding in getting drunk. Barb comes around by going to Patti's gig at the end of the film with an emotionally powerful wallup I can't spoil. Her grandmother played by the always entertaining Cathy Moriarty, who is one of the coolest grandma's on film being sampled in her rap demo, reassures her that she is her superstar no matter what happens or what anyone else thinks. In contrast to her mom, Nana offers blind support while being featured on the cover of her granddaughter's album in a balaclava.
The obvious lessons to be learned are don't give up on your dreams even if they seem far away and unattainable. If you have the passion and drive good things will come your way though rarely only positive. Even the most cold hearted haters of rap will come away being inspired by the story even if they scowl at the music.