Late in director Geremy Jasper’s “Patti Cake$,” a black rap mogul (Sahr Ngaujah) sizes up the overweight white girl who has just delivered his cocktail along with a copy of her demo and a fervently performed original verse. “You’re just a culture vulture,” he sniffs. It’s a cheap and devastating barb to lob at Patti (Danielle Macdonald), one of many that have already been hurled her way.
Rap has historically been an art form of cathartic resistance and liberation, created by oppressed black men to give voice, truth and emotion to their experiences. Using this rebellious form allows those who are invisible in society to angrily bear witness to their existence and create their own representation, which is exactly what Patti intends to do, and in this world, Patti needs liberating the most.
A lower-class girl from New Jersey, she’s discriminated against because of her size and gender; economic struggles have crippled her upward mobility. She’s body shamed by the white men she crushes on, sexually shamed for her gender, hounded by collection agencies after payment for her grandmother’s medical bills.
It’s a culture bearing an aggressive strain of white patriarchy, and rap stardom is her fantasy, her way out, but more importantly, her way of constructing herself. It’s Patti’s way to tell her own story and express who she is.
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In “Patti Cake$,” outsiders create art away from the traditional structures of industry. During a gas station parking lot cypher with white rappers, Patti is violently head-butted after she schools them all. And trying to keep up puff for puff with the stoner black rappers in the recording studio proves impossible. She ends up cutting a DIY demo in a ramshackle structure in the woods with her group, PBNJ, comprised of her pharmacist best friend and hype man, Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay); the local anarchist, Basterd (Mamoudou Athie); and her chain-smoking, wheelchair-bound Nana (Cathy Moriarty).
Jasper’s cinematic style is wild and manic, using a hand-held camera in extreme close-up and fast editing to pump the gas on this nearly out-of-control bus. It can be off-putting, but he places the emphasis on Patti’s subjectivity. We experience the story through her point of view, her fantasies of stardom.
The actress and cabaret star Bridget Everett stars as Patti’s mother, a washed-up singer who gave up her band for her baby, whose only remaining moments of rock goddess glory are on the karaoke stage. Everett is fabulous in this multi-layered performance.
The film belongs to the incredible Macdonald; this is her star-is-born moment. But “Patti Cake$” is so well-cast that every character shines, particularly the newcomer, online discovery Dhananjay. “Patti Cake$” is a rousing tale of freedom, creative expression, self-discovery, finding your voice — and actually being heard.
Rated R for language throughout, crude sexual references, some drug use and a brief nude image. 1:48. Kentucky.