Overview: The story of aspiring rapper, Killa P, and her desire to somehow get out of Jersey. Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2017; Rated R; 108 minutes
Someone To Root For: The best underdog stories are about aspiration, finding a better place, both inside of ourselves and to journey towards. It must be understood why our hero (or heroine) has not made it yet, but also why we should root for them to actually succeed in the first place. These characters must have faults, and an inner nobility that only we and their closest friends and kin are aware of, something that they hold close to their chest. This is why the best underdog stories focus on characters that have more than a bit of bluster, a gruff exterior hiding the purity inside.
Divided Loyalties: Patti Cake$, from first time writer and director Geremy Jasper, despite some obvious plot points and contrived moments particularly in the finale, gifts us with one of these wonderful underdogs. Danielle McDonald, in the title role, absolutely owns the screen. In moments where she is assaulted, both verbally and physically, by peers and even family, we see her pain without her exposing this weakness to her attackers. These moments of toughness and bravado make her softer scenes warm the audience. Although the expectations are to focus on her dreams of signing to a record label, this story divides itself between that and simpler beats. Whether it be her caretaking for her grandmother (Kathy Moriarty) or showcasing the pure joy of creation and friendshipo with Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) and Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), the film takes the time to remind us of why Patti deserves some modicum of happiness and success.
Forward and Outward: It is important to notice that Patti almost never writes or performs about her literal life. Her focus is outward and forward. She sees enough of her struggles every day, so why not dream about a life of leisure, one totally foreign to her experiences, one where her life is amazing. And yet, Patti’s relationships in this difficult life are the backbone of her story. Jheri is the only one who has consistently been there for her, and asks almost nothing in return. He is there in every moment of self-doubt to remind her of her worthiness and talent. Patti’s changing relationship with Basterd is a testament to what a word or two of kindness can mean to an outcast. Patti, Jheri, and Basterd are all outcasts, each a different kind. Their growth together somehow makes sense because of their differences. A scene in which they first create music is a moment of bonding both artistically and personally. The high we receive secondhand is palpable because of the performances and the music created by Geremy Jasper.
Love Me or Hate Me: Patti’s family is a different journey entirely. Many underdog stories make the mistake of creating familial characters that are either perfect or villainous. This is not the case here. The character of Barb, Patti’s mother, portrayed by Bridget Everett strikes this difficult balance. Likely, the audience will hate her and love her depending on the scene being watched. She may treat Patti awfully, but the bond between mother and daughter if felt and real. There is a real pain experienced at the gulf between them, despite a shared love of music. This love could help them share their hopes and dreams, but instead it pushes them farther apart.
It’s About the Music: The music of Patti Cake$ must be effective, or the film would never stand on its own. As Patti grows and changes, so does her music. She moves from freestyle rap battles on street corners to using completely foreign (to her ears) styles of music to craft a new sound. This flexibility and willingness to bring others in to the fold is what makes Patti and her sound stand out. There is a slow but noticeable build as her music travels from raw to slightly more polished. This lack of perfection and lack of an established star in the role has the desired impact of the audience never being sure if she will succeed or even what success means in Patti’s case.
Overall: Patti Cake$ is a crowd pleasing underdog story you can truly root for. Danielle McDonald bursts on to the scene in a role you will not likely forget, equal parts heart, toughness, and talent. She is supported by a decent script, capable direction, and memorable costars that buoy her wonderful presence.
Featured Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures