The Poetry in Patti Cake$' Raps

  • by David Lamble
  • Sunday August 27, 2017
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The first thing you should know about Ms. Patti Cake$ - aspiring white rapper Patricia Dombrowski, a.k.a. Killa P - is that she's a Jersey girl. And whether or not you like or dislike New Jersey native writer-director Geremy Jasper's Sundance-workshopped film "Patti Cake$," you will remember one of this still-young film year's breakout performances, from Aussie native Danielle Macdonald as the title talent.

Fighting an unlikely quest for glory in her downtrodden Jersey hometown where her life is falling apart, Patti tries to reach the big time in the hip-hop scene with original and affecting music. Cheered on by her grandmother - a funny-grumpy comeback turn from Cathy Moriarty ("Raging Bull") - and only friends, Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) and Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), Patti also shoulders her mother's (Bridget Everett) heartaches and misfortunes.

"Patti Cake$" takes off inside one of those awful florescent-lit pharmacy/variety stores that dot the Jersey strip-mall landscape like canker sores. We hear Jheri (on the store mike) greeting Patti's (late) arrival for work: "Miss Patti Cake$ is in the building!" - whereupon a sour-faced supervisor steps in. "This is not Showtime at the Apollo. Please make believe on your lunch break."

Jheri attempts to raise Patti's spirits with an encouraging sally: "This shit can happen for us. All we need is a producer, like a fiery beast. Once the buzz starts we're on the highway to greener pastures, baby!"

Now it may seem like stretching the point to compare a 2017 sassy white rapper flick to a 1980 boxing masterpiece full of spit and blood, but like "Raging Bull," "Patti Cake$" is a full-throated East Coast immigrant war cry. It hits some of the same disconcerting notes as that other shit-stirring Sundance breakout, "Beach Rats," opening here later this summer.

Patti, for much of the film, lives in two worlds: one where's she viewed as an overweight waitron/busgirl; the other, where she's a rebel warrior. Her raps burst like boxer Jake LaMotta's fists. Like the fights in "Raging Bull," Patti's raps take up a tiny portion of the film's running time, but there's a poetry to her punches that you'll remember. "Patti Cake$" showcases hip-hop's ability to invigorate Anglo-Saxon lowdown-dirty language, to produce a primal scream for our time.

Watching "Patti Cake$" at San Francisco's Metreon with a responsive crowd took me back to a 1994 press screening of another pushy Jersey-shore flick: the in-your-face hilarious convenience/videostore insurrection comedy "Clerks," where the witty, foul-mouthed Randal (Jeff Anderson) spits in Quikstop customers' faces and tells his timid clerk buddy (Brian O'Halloran), "You know I'm your hero!" "Patti Cake$" updates the sass and the pouty-mouthed humor, and lets even rebel grrls join in on a 21st-century cry for freedom.