Patti Cake$ – and yes, the title is stylized so that the S looks like a dollar sign – is one of those films that’s intentionally designed to make the audience feel good. This means that it either knowingly glosses over details that would make the story more plausible, or the filmmakers didn’t have the foresight to include them in the first place; in either case, we in the audience are obviously not supposed to care. It also means that the plot follows a formula of contrivances and includes turns of events that are very, very predictable. And as with the lack of plausibility details, we’re simply not supposed to care. A good film will either charm you into not caring or be constructed in such a way that you wouldn’t notice what not to care about.
Patti Cake$ is a good film. It’s all convention, and you can see how it’s going to end pretty much as soon as it begins, but what it lacks in originality and believability is made up for with great casting, strong performances, and the sheer satisfaction, one could even argue the wonderful distraction, of watching the title character’s dreams coming true. It’s no wonder to me that it was such a hit at the Sundance Film Festival this past January; it didn’t win any awards, but according to Patrick Ryan of USA Today, Australian newcomer Danielle Macdonald was given a standing ovation when taking the stage at the world premiere. Indeed, the audience I sat with at the film’s Los Angeles press screening applauded her name when it appeared during the end credits.
She plays Patricia Dumbrowski, a young woman from the slums of New Jersey who dreams of fame and fortune as a rap artist. As would be expected, she has just about everything stacked against her. She can only secure a menial job as a bartender, where of course she endures daily abuse from broken-spirited middle-aged men; she eventually has to take on a second job, part-time work as a caterer, just to help her family pay off outstanding debts. She’s completely discouraged by her single mother Barb (comedienne Bridget Everett), whose broken dreams of becoming a singer have hardened her into a bitter alcoholic. She can only desperately cling to the good ol’ days by singing karaoke at her daughter’s bar; her voice is beautiful, but her drunken antics are embarrassing. Patti’s grandmother (an unrecognizable Cathy Moriarty), though caring, is a wheelchair-bound invalid numb on nicotine and pain pills. Even Patti’s obesity very obviously allows for cruel people to bastardize her last name into Dumbo.
Apart from her piles of notebooks filled with streetwise, profanity-laced lyrics, she finds solace with her best friend, a young pharmacist named Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), who shares in her love of rap. She also idolizes a major hip hop artist named O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), seen mostly in Patti’s fantasy sequences, his grilled gold teeth and big sunglasses eerily lit by green skies filled with equally green, swirling thunderclouds. Patti, who mostly refers to herself as Killer P, soon finds an unlikely ally in a young man who refers to himself as Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a multi-pierced, virtually silent, self-described satanic anarchist who composes screamo music in a shack that can only be accessed through a graffiti-covered concrete tunnel behind a cemetery. We of course know that his gothic persona – his shack a frightening shrine of animal bones, lit candles, and monster sketches, with a TV that airs Night of the Living Dead – is just a cover, that deep down he’s a good person. Why he feels the need to act out in this particular way is something the film doesn’t bother to address.
We’re not supposed to question how a rundown shack in the middle of nowhere is getting the electricity required for an entire music studio, or how a kid like Basterd can truly live like this without being seen – or at the very least, without his excruciatingly loud music being heard. All we’re meant to care about is the fact that this is where Patti, Jheri, and Basterd record an EP under the name PBNJ. I could suspend disbelief for this. What I couldn’t suspend disbelief for was the fact that Patti involved her grandmother in this process, her cigarette-burned voiced sampled and used as a backing track. What’s even more unbelievable is that she, an old woman who in all likelihood never heard a hip hop song in her life, would actually want to take part. A feel-good movie can only go so far before it becomes silly.
It should come as no surprise that the final act hinges on a rap competition, made possible because a DJ at a bar mitzvah actually bothered to listen to the EP Patti gave to her. And the film has all of the plot turns that I can’t give away yet we’re all intimately familiar with. I guess what I’m saying is that Patti Cake$ doesn’t give us anything a thousand other films haven’t already given, with or without the backdrop of the hip hop music scene. But as we all know, there are types of movies that we actively seek out, even if we know that they’re unoriginal and predictable. We seek them out because they, emotionally, they give us what we need. If you leave this film, or any film like it, and say, “It doesn’t happen like this in real life,” you’re missing the point entirely.