01st Sep2017

‘Patti Cake$’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Danielle Macdonald, Bridgett Everett, Siddharth Dhananjay, Mamoudou Athie, Cathy Moriarty | Written and Directed by Geremy Jasper

patti-cakes-uk-poster

Written, directed and largely composed by Geremy Jasper, a New Jersey music video director making his first feature, Patti Cake$ is an exceptionally well made film, displaying the sort of rawness and authenticity only possible in street-level filmmaking. It’s a fresh take on some very familiar underdog story traits.

23-year-old Patricia (Danielle Macdonald), AKA Patti, lives a meagre existence of microwave meals, tinned lager and daytime TV. She lives with her mother, Barbara (Bridgett Everett) – a “friend” to many a local gentleman – and her sarcastic, chain-smoking Nana (Cathy Moriarty). Patti dreams of taking the star-studded crown from her hero, O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), and becoming “Killa P”, the sickest rapper on the East Coast. But her reality is merely sick: her family’s declining health is costing them dearly in insurance bills.

Bullied by locals – they call her “Dumbo” – Patti has some talent in spitting lyrics, and she is spurred on by her bestie Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), seemingly the only person who believes in her, including herself. A fateful encounter with a transient artist calling himself “Basterd the Antichrist” (Mamoudou Athie) leads her to form a band. “PBNJ” is comprised of herself, Basterd, Jheri and – believe it or not – Nana. Patti must balance 10-hour work shifts with recording an album, all while taking an emotional beating from her mother.

Patti Cake$ is a film of chemistries, and mom and daughter are the main pairing. They are a toxic combination. Barbara had to give up her music career (her pseudonym was “Barb Wire”) when she got pregnant, and there’s the very present sense that she blames Patti for being born and ruining her chances. While Patti is committed to gaining approval from a mother of whom she does not approve, Barbara’s journey is to overcome her bitterness and find reconciliation. Jasper always finds interesting ways in which to portray the changing relationship. It’s not simply a case of the characters talking it out: Patti bribes Barbara with cigarettes so that mom will tend to her daughter’s hair in a kitchen sink full of beer cans.

A much warmer chemistry exists between Patti and Jheri, muse to each other’s muse. Then there is Basterd, a hermit who lives by a graveyard in a recording studio built from junk. The music they make isn’t great – energetic, brash and obnoxious – but it is undeniably theirs. After all the casual abuse Patti suffers about her appearance, and after Basterd’s trainwreck of a live performance, you really yearn for their success. Especially as the tragedies are going to pile up before the end.

In terms of plotting, Jasper’s film isn’t very subtle. But its broad strokes are consistent with the story’s fairy tale structure and imagery, chief of which is Patti’s pursuit of O-Z. Her dream visions of this omniscient figure are bathed in emerald green (albeit more ‘90s music video than Frank Baum).  The chain of events that leads Patti to her destiny begins when she follows her curiosity into the forbidden woods – through a dark and foreboding gateway – to Basterd’s hidden house, which is as tumbledown as a witch’s shack. There are more subtle references, too, in the  transportive nature of Patti’s powers, and how she is repeatedly told to return to reality; and in the overarching “be true to oneself” morality.

Also consistent with fairy tale storytelling is the ridiculous coincidence that leads Patti to her face-to-face meeting with O-Z. It may be the most important encounter of her life. It’s also vital for the film, because at this point the narrative shifts. Until now it has been a story about dragging oneself out of dire straits; suddenly it is a question of personal authenticity. And this is what sets Patti Cake$ apart from countless other underdog stories. It is less about the outcome of Patti’s final performance and more about its significance. That climax, though cheesy as hell, is probably the most exhilarating, vindicating showdown since the drum solo in Whiplash. There is even some ambiguity about how well (or poorly) Patti’s performance goes, which renders normal notions of triumph and failure irrelevant.

With exceptional performances, vibrant editing, and a great script full of interesting and varied incidents, all under the close control of a new director with talent to spare, Patti Cake$ is the ideal tonic for a desolate cinema season. It depicts a tough world with warmth and humour, sprinkled with magic realism, and it never wallows in the misery of its colourful, complex, contradictory characters. It’s an emerald in the dirt.

Patti Cake$ is out in UK cinemas from today.

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