She’s belittled, bullied, battered and told she has no talent, no future, no hope.
Creditors are dunning her; her mother (Everett) is a drunk, her grandmother, Nana (Cathy Moriarty), is little better. She lives in “dirty Jersey,” surrounded by graffiti and strip malls and depression.
She’s the kind of person for whom the term “white trash” was coined. She’s working two jobs, going nowhere but deeper into frustration. She’s out of options, running out of everything but her belief in herself.
For Patricia Dombrowski (Macdonald), aka Killa P, aka Patti Cake$, the end of the line is the beginning of the dream. And her unlikely goal—most would say impossible hallucination—is to be a hip-hop legend, a rap star.“Patti Cake$” is a raw coming of-age story with all the directness, vulgarity, energy and dark scatological humor that rap brought to the forefront of music; MacDonald makes it real enough to feel like a documentary.
There’s a thin line between reality and home movies, however, and this film sometimes comes dangerously close to that line with scenes that are underlit and characters who cross the boundary from natural to amateurish.
But while Patti runs out of confidence, director Jasper never runs out of courage; he’s determined to tell this story.
We meet Patti in a fever dream, surrounded by billowing clouds of green, introduced by mega-watt rapper O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah). That dream—there will be others—transport her from her dismal reality, in which she lives with her deadbeat single mom and works in a bar where she’s relentlessly taunted with sexual insults.
Jheri (Dhananjay), a local pharmacist, and Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a mix artist with his own crib in a cemetery, befriend her and Nana.
Finally, it’s all coming together.
But then, when she has a chance to impress the influential people, she has “a tough run;” tragedy comes in layers as she loses herself in a spiral of negativity. Perhaps her mother is right; maybe she “doesn’t have a musical bone in her body.”
“The bigger the girl,” she raps, “the deeper the pain.” She’s a big girl who has the talent. Does she have the endurance?
The supporting cast is small, largely unknown, but with several standouts.
As Patti’s mother, Everett brings a cruel toughness to her role. She convinces us she once had a voice and a dream; she convinces herself she still has both.
And as Patti’s friend Basterd, Athie creates a complex and likable character—slow-speaking, soft-voiced and very talented. He’s alternately approachable and really frightening in his pierced intensity.
But Macdonald is the life force driving the movie; you’ll forget she’s white and Australian; she makes Patti a cocky and coarse Jersey woman filled with false bravado, a persistent dream and a pervasive sense of joy.
The movie has a low-budget feel that seems right for the story. Jasper comes from the world of commercials and music videos, and he infuses excitement and energy in every scene. The cutting is insistent; the camera work is loose.
The camera never really leaves the neighborhood, and the lyrics are filed with references to the sexual predators who lurk there. This is hard-luck America, the only world Patti knows—and is trying to escape.
But the movie never makes us really feel her pain; it never goes too deep or gets so dark that we fear there won’t be light at the end of the rap.
The story is rough around the edges, gritty in the center, but never quite enough; the ending feels spliced on.
Character development is minimal and the story feels most relevant to urban audiences. For others, especially those who’ve moved beyond rap, the movie may be more of a curiosity rather than a compelling experience.
“I thought,” Patti says, “I could be someone.”
Maybe. But if Patti doesn’t find fame, you’ll leave convinced that Macdonald will.