There is something familiar about Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) — aka Killa P, aka Patti Cake$ — an aspiring rapper from New Jersey who is barely surviving life on the other side of the tracks, despite big dreams and unexpected talent. Writer-director Geremy Jasper, a New Jersey native himself who initially made his name in the music video world on projects like Selena Gomez & the Scene: Love You Like a Love Song, positions her as the Garden State’s distaff version of Rabbit (Eminem) from 8 Mile, with a few sampled elements from other movies about underdogs included. Patti Cake$ is a straight-up love song with a backbeat and bite.
Patti’s a full-figured woman living in a world where, no matter how we try to rebrand our cultural models, being thin remains the standard. But that doesn’t stop Patti from staring into the mirror and celebrating her reflection with self-love. We watch Patti as she strolls down the street, walking with the supreme confidence and swagger generally associated with A-list athletes and entertainers. She’s a star in her own mind, merely waiting for the rest of world to catch up with her own estimation.
What’s fascinating about Patti is how eerily similar she is to the character of Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) from the 2009 Lee Daniels film of the same name. Precious was a Harlem teen — obese, abused and pregnant with her second child — seeking to escape her situation. An educational opportunity offered a way out, but Precious had delirious fever dreams of fame and love as the elusive keys to the other (and far brighter) side of life. Acceptance was what she truly wanted, but she struggled mightily to grant this vital gift to herself. Patti, it seems, has a leg up on Precious, because she has a foundation of faith and self-love.
Which is important, since there’s little chance of finding anyone else to believe in her. Her mother Barb (Bridget Everett) is a boozy has-been, a singer who, once upon a time, had real pipes (and the looks to have been the sister of Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson). Now, she stumbles into the bar where Patti works, downs a series of shots and belches her way through a karaoke tune or two before retreating to the bathroom, where she vomits the night away with her daughter sometimes left holding her hair.
It’s not difficult to see the contentious relationship between Patti and Barb as analogous to the constricting ties that bound The Kid (Prince) and his musician father (Clarence Williams III) in Purple Rain. In the case of Patti and Barb, however, there’s a more traditional generational squabble over whether or not Barb can see and appreciate Patti’s interest in rap as authentic musical expression. The argument, while outdated, opens up the door for Patti and her ragtag crew — featuring her best friend (Siddharth Dhananjay), a fellow dreamer and a musical and cultural outcast (Mamoudou Athie) — to appropriate vocal elements from Barb’s past efforts into a brand-new piece, much like The Kid does after his father’s suicide attempt.
All of these sampled genre elements set the stage for a typically rousing and uplifting finale, but Jasper doesn’t shy away from the desperate reality of life in New Jersey, where there really can’t be a fairy tale “happily ever after” ending, because the state’s working-class roots are about as far away as you can get from such make-believe fantasies.
During a recent phone interview, I asked him what films inspired and informed him while working on Patti Cake$. “The big inspiration,” he acknowledges, “was The Wrestler, the Darren Aronofsky film. It was a huge inspiration. Then, Welcome to the Dollhouse by Todd Solondz. Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee) is one of my favorite films ever — just visually what Ernest Dickerson does with the camera is inspiring. I studied that movie over and over again. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson) and Belly by Hype Williams. It was interesting, since I was starting out with little filmmaking experience. People wanted to know what the film would look like and I would tell them it would be a combination of all these films.”
Like the music coming from Patti’s heart, the film draws from disparate sources, weaving and recontextualizing these inspirations into a groovy anthem for a powerful generation no longer waiting patiently to be heard. (Now playing at Esquire Theatre.) (R) Grade: B+