SXSW Review: Patti Cake$

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When discussing a movie from 2017 that features music as a main component, there’s a good chance that people will want to bring up La La Land. There’s really nothing wrong with that at all. The main difference between it and competitors comes down to perspective. While it does feature universal comments on love and how people effect or shape our lives, it’s focus is on the lucky attractive few who get to see their dreams come true. More often that not though, dreamers are trapped in their hometown, just trying desperately to break free. Even the slightest of victories would mean the most to them. Thankfully, along comes a film like Patti Cake$ to bridge that divide.

Telling a relatively low key story of one particular dreamer wasting away in Jersey, Patti Cake$ is a surefire crowd-pleaser. The kind people tend to complain there aren’t enough of these days. Or at least the kind that big studios aren’t willing to shell out and make, unless carefully cultivated specifically to win awards.

Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) carries the weight of the world on her broad shoulders. She’s 23, works odd hours at a dive bar, cares for her nana (Cathy Moriarty), ducks debt collector calls and endures constantly bullying from those who have an issue her being plus sized. On top of all this, she has to contend with an overbearing mother, who is just as quick to snatch any money Patricia makes, as she is to convincing her to comp drinks. It’s no wonder Patti (as her grandmother lovingly calls her) retreats into bouts of daydreams and music, where she’s caught the favor of local mega producer O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah).

Patti knows her chances of making it big are slim, but that doesn’t stop her from dreaming all the same. Nor would she have a chance to, thanks to her best friend and hype man Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). Constantly supportive and just as driven to get himself out of Jersey, Jheri provides a much needed contrast to the world that surrounds everyone else. When he whispers to Patti, “go hulk”, he’s playing both angel and demon, injecting just enough confidence in this girl who constantly doubts herself. That moment speaks to the ebb and flow of the movie itself, considering it occurs during a rap battle that would climax most films. Here it occurs around the halfway point, with a cap that just adds more road blocks between her and her dream.

While there are a few sequences that feel needlessly cruel, just to knock Patti back a few pegs, her jubilant nature and will to persevere helps to balance the scales. She doesn’t back down, but instead steps up, rejuvenated and confident that this time she’ll conquer that steepest of hills.

Sure, it can be argued the movie is more than a little cliche, owing equal parts to 8 Mile and Hustle & Flow, but first time director Geremy Jasper instills his characters with enough heart and energy to curb most of those “samey” feelings. Working off his own experiences growing up in Jersey, there is a dinginess, as well an honesty to the film that feels lived in and real.

If that doesn’t sound compelling enough, then when was the last time anyone saw a film whose focal point was a glorious triangle of diversity? There’s Patti, of course, at the tip as a strong plus-sized female. On the lower, but equally important points are a Middle Eastern pharmacist (Jheri) and an African American Punk/Metal musician (Basterd). The latter comes as an interesting addition to the group. Initially seen as a loner at the VFW hall, performing a rather challenging set, Basterd (Mamoudou Athie) proves to be integral to Patti staying on course. While many may see his character as an annoying trope of sorts, Jasper makes this feel intentional, as if Basterd is putting up a front.

Patti Cake$ thrives on heart and determination, just like all the characters that litter its world. It may not be the biggest or flashiest film out there, but is one that tells the tales of the forgotten dreamers, who struggle through life due to their differences, yet just want to be acknowledged and accepted. If that isn’t worth celebrating, then what is?

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