I remember thinking last year’s indie darling Sing Street (which celebrates the joy of watching a young new wave band come into their own in 1980s Dublin) was cute & mostly enjoyable, but 2017 has already offered two cheaply-made features that improve on its basic formula. The darkly funny romantic dramedy Band Aid juxtaposes the joys of watching a garage band come together with the tragedy of a marriage falling apart, adding a sense of purpose to the songwriting missing in Sing Street’s dedication to nostalgic pastiche. Patti Cake$, by contrast, sticks much closer to Sing Street’s recipe, a rags to slightly-nicer-rags story where a young pop music act struggles to gain the confidence in their own voice they can only experience in their music video daydreams. The difference for me is that Patti Cake$ steers this narrative towards a much more satisfying emotional climax and happens to frame its setting in a world I can much more readily identify with. Its tale of misfit nerds trying to leave their mark on a behind the times, low stakes New Jersey rap scene feels specifically geared to remind me of Coming of Age in my own shitty industrial suburb (Chalmette is pretty much a New Orleans-scale Jersey) when nu metal and Ca$h Money were a huge deal. It even includes an out of nowhere Bikini Kill needle drop plucked directly from my personal high school soundtrack just to drive the last nail in the coffin. It’s a celebratory music scene fairy tale version of a life I’ve already lived, which makes Sing Street’s coming of age romance feel increasingly hollow in the rearview.
The titular Patti Cake$, aka Killer P, aka Patricia (breakout actor Danielle Macdonald), is an aspiring white girl rapper whose service industry jobs (bartending at a karaoke dive bar & picking up extra cash catering) are far from the pop star excess she longs for in her music video-inspired daydreams. She hopes to be signed one day by local rap legend Oz, who appears to be half A$AP Rocky/half wizard, but doesn’t have the confidence to even challenge the Vanilla Ice-flavored EDM idiots who stage concert at the local VFW halls. Her addict mother (Lady Dynamite‘s Bridget Everett) knocks her down for not having a talent for “real” music, unlike her own past of fronting a hair metal band in the 80s. Neighborhood bullies insult her from all sides for being overweight before even hearing what she has to say. Rap game rivals & idols, including the all-powerful Oz, tell her she has no business even trying to make it, that she should just stick to her service industry purgatory. Still, she hones her skills at writing bars around the clock, rapping while she’s brushing her teeth, pissing, and preparing the morning’s Pop Tarts. Eventually, she finds her own scarecrow & tin woodsman (a nerdy pharmacist hype man & a goth version of Nell with a shack full of expensive beat-making equipment) to follow the mixtape road to success with her, despite the constant flood of reasons to quit. The speed bumps along the way are undeniably cliché (including a subplot about her mother’s jealousy so old hat it was spoofed on a Strangers With Candy episode nearly two decades ago), but feed into the film’s charms as an old fashioned fairy tale. By the time the Hero’s Journey concludes with a climactic concert and an alternate path to (minor) success, the cumulative effect is awe-inspiringly great. We’re all rooting for Patti Cake$.
Director Geremy Jasper’s debut feature is impressive not only in its parallel-thinking improvements on the Sing Street formula, but also in its infectious sense of style. Patti Cake$‘s slightly heightened sense of reality feels like a Ca$h Money album cover adapted to a feature length fairy tale. It’s less of the ramshackle 8 Mile it’s been marketed as than it is a surreal comedy that clashes the green smoke & bubble bath fantasy of rap videos against the strip mall & cigarette butts reality of industrial suburbs for relatable, darkly humorous effect. It’s like a hip-hop version of Drop Dead Gorgeous in that way, especially in scenes where it undercuts its small scale triumphs with the visible awkwardness of details like fumbling, nerdy sex and celebratory mozzarella sticks. Everyone in the film, from the rebellious go-nowhere twentysomethings to their bitter went-nowhere authority figures, feels as if they’re permanently stuck in the summer after high school graduation, rotting in a stasis of indecision & dwindling opportunities. Some of the details of this world are very specific to New Jersey, including a real life Cookie Puss, but a lot of it applies to every small town industrial suburb in the US. If Patti Cake$ were set in the Midwest, it’d likely be a Juggalo story. If it were set in Chalmette, Louisiana, its nu metal moment in the VFW Hall (featuring an industrial metal song with the lyrics “You’re sheep! Wake up!”) would’ve commanded the entire feature. If it were set in Dublin, well, I feel like I’ve already seen that movie. Patti Cake$’s Jersey rap scene setting isn’t essential to its storytelling, as hinted at by the cycle started by the mother character’s hair metal past, but it does afford the film a striking sense of cheap-to-produce visual imagery that helps distinguish its supernatural fairy tale tone. What’s much more important is the way the film succeeds in making that fairy tale feel freshly funny & emotionally satisfying, despite its overriding sense of familiarity.