“You’re a culture vulture… stick to making drinks, white girl.” So it is that 23-year-old Patricia “Dumbo” Dombrowski’s (Danielle Macdonald) rap idol, O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), completely dashes her dreams in one fell swoop. Which is rather saying a lot considering just how many around her, including her own mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), get off on cutting her down at every opportunity–even when there isn’t one. Doomed to the fate of being a Bergen County, NJ resident, Patti spends her days (and nights) working a grim job as a bartender at a hyper-local haunt called Lou’s. In addition to serving the drinks, she also faithfully sets up the karaoke machine each shift, where the greatest tragedy isn’t the performances from the old men regulars, but the ones that occur when her mother takes the stage to relive the glory days of her youth, when she was formerly in a band called Barb Wire with a Pat Benatar meets Heart sound. And yes, she does sing Heart’s “These Dreams” to really drive home the macabre point that, in spite of being a failure in reality, “These dreams go on when I close my eyes/Every second of the night I live another life.” Patti, too, lives her own alternate life. Like Ke$ha–another notorious white girl–before her, Killa P employs the dollar sign when going by Patti Cake$ as an irreverent nod to the fact that she’s broke as all get out. This financial state is compounded by the mounting medical bills of Patti’s ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty, whose Bronx-born and Raging Bull credits make her an ideal fit for the “tough old broad” role). After numerous health issues, Nana has been hopped up on pain meds and misery, finding the most comfort in watching Judge Faith episodes and smoking even though she shouldn’t. Still, she finds the time in between her own emotional and physical problems to support Patti in her aspirations.
Her best friend and pharmacist-by-day, Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), is the only other pillar in her life that truly believes in her stardom with unwavering conviction. It’s he who pushes her out into the crowd to compete with her crush, Danny (McCaul Lombardi), a requisite Jersey guido who works at his dad’s pizza shop and deals weed to Jheri (or rather, oregano). His treatment of Patti at one point during their rap battle proves to be a physical manifestation of all the verbal abuse she withstands on a daily basis–like being called “white Precious” by Danny himself.
When Jheri and Patti encounter Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie) at a freestyle event that Danny is performing at, Patti is the only one who can see something in his violent, guitar-laden declaration, “Wake up, sheep!” Shy and moody, Patti can barely get through to him until she happens upon him in the cemetery with her Nana one day as they drop off a Cookie Puss at her grandfather’s grave. That glistening, melting Cookie Puss is so much symbolism for Patti herself, shining bright to those who can see her worth through an unpleasant-by-conventional-standards aesthetic.
After wheeling her Percocet-influenced Nan through the “Gates of Hell,” a tunnel leading to Basterd’s satanic-looking, off the grid abode, she further proves her understanding when it comes to nurturing the pursuit of a dream. Nana even consents to staying in the ramshackle and throwing down vocals that turn into “P, B, N, J/P, P, B, N, J” for what will become the standout track to DJ French Tips (played by none other than MC Lyte) on their mixtape. With a spurt of new confidence after Jheri informs them he got them a record release party at a strip club called Cheaters, Patti is propelled to write and rap more vigorously than ever so that they can finish their CD–yes, CD–in time. As she spits, “They say mo’ money, mo’ problems/Well I ain’t got no dollas/So I should have no problems but sure as shit I got ’em,” it all harkens back to the irony of that dollar sign in her name. And the fact that Barb is constantly pressuring her to make more money to help her pay the bills.
The contention between matriarch and daughter is further compounded by Barb’s resentment of Patti attempting to pursue her own avenue of music. Her inability to let go of the loss of her own youth is most evident in her deciding to nickname themselves the Dombrowski sisters. When Patti, at the end of her rope after holding her mother’s hair in the bathroom stall of the bar most every night, asks “Why can’t you act your age?” Barb snaps back, “Why can’t you act your race?” And yes, it’s inevitable that Patti Cake$ will invoke eye rolls about race the same way IRL white girl rappers do. But Patti has her issues like anyone of a lower class, including an intense desire not to repeat the same mistakes as her progenitors. The harrowing “I’m Not Gonna Be Her” reveals Patti’s ultimate fear–turning into a depressed drunk lamenting over broken dreams–as she asserts, “When I close my eyes I see her, cover my eyes I hear her/I’ll look in the mirror/I’m not gonna be her.”
Macdonald, most likely because she’s Australian, is sponge-like in her ability to rap (why do you think Iggy Azalea can do it? In fact, they both sound rather similar thanks to the malleability of the Aussie inflection). Though the film has been condemned by some for its early 00s beats and rhymes, perhaps some of its sound can be explained by the fact that all the lyrics were written by writer-director Geremy Jasper, himself from Hillsdale, New Jersey and a confessor of his longtime wish to be a rap producer and rapper (“I just don’t have the voice for it, and I always sounded ridiculous on the tracks,” he admitted). That he didn’t have the voice to do it prompted him to create the alter ego of Patti. And with the help of Macdonald, the two intensively worked together to create the songs that would ultimately compose the soundtrack.
As Guillaume Laurant wrote in the script that would become Amélie (the ultimate white girl movie), “Times are hard for dreamers.” For those with a sensitive gag reflex to a bit of cheese mixed with standard three-act structure triumph, Patti Cake$ may not be the movie for you. But for the few left who have sustained faith in their own unlikely dreams, Patti Cake$ might be the affirming version of an 8 Mile directed by John Hughes that is sorely needed.