Arts & Culture

‘Patti Cake$’ emotionally, thoughtfully follows aspiring rapper

‘Patti Cake$’ highlights struggles of restlessness, rundown neighborhoods in beautiful detail

By
a&c editor
Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Cable Car Cinema, a Providence film theater and coffee shop frequented by students seeking independent and international cinematic entertainment, has been a staple of the Providence indie scene for decades. But the films that the Cable Car shows range from film festival darlings to newly unearthed jewels. “Patti Cake$,” the breakthrough film of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is one such film.

The movie features Patricia Dombrowski, a.k.a. Patti Cake$, a.k.a. Killer P, and her poignant quest for glory. Hers is a relentless struggle to break free from the daily realities of her downtrodden New Jersey hometown. She dreams of making it as a rap star, and her dreams uplift her, giving her a purpose, while also holding her back in a state of brewing restlessness throughout the film.

The film does not paint a pretty picture of her surroundings. Patti seems stuck on the wrong side of the Hudson River, overlooking the Manhattan skyline that feels as inaccessible as having throngs of fans shouting her name. Her ordinary hometown lends to Patti’s life an untenable flatness that is propitious for big dreams.

The film’s beauty is in the details: The way the camera catches the small things in Patti’s life make the story touching. The pace of the first half of the story is slow. The viewer is left squirming in her seat, feeling keen empathy for each of the characters who are hopping from one foot to another, ready to bolt into something bigger than the trapping monotony of their lives.

Accompanying the restlessness that the film conveys come other more subtle themes that deal with the continued rejection Patti faces. At 23, Patti, an obese white woman, does not ‘look’ the part of the aspiring rapper. Her close friend and collaborator Jheri, a happy-go-lucky try-hard of Indian origin, also does not fit in with the aspiring rap crowd of their hometown. The viewer fears for Patti that the world she longs for seems barred to her by virtue of who she is and what she looks like. The rap world’s rejection of Patti, combined with her mother’s projection of her own failures, push Patti even further from her dreams.

The movie draws an uncomfortable parallel between Patti’s life and her mother’s. Her mother, Barb, was also once an inspiring artist. She was held back by an unwanted pregnancy and reduced to reliving her glory days at the local bar’s karaoke machine. Patti is often at odds with Barb, alternating between disgust and truly tender moments. Her consistent fear of ending up in her mother’s shoes weaves into the multitude of tensions, fears and dreams that make up the general restless mood of the film.

For a solid hour or so, Patti meanders down a path toward an impossible dream. She finally finds her place among others who don’t ‘look the part.’ This includes the elusive figure of Tyrone, a black antichrist with clothes and a fake blue eye a la Marilyn Manson; Jheri, who endeavors to release the group’s E.P. at the local strip club; and her beloved grandmother, Nan, who suffers from a pill addiction and can only move in a wheelchair.

Patti’s life gains traction as she works two jobs and begins to record with her new group. Her mother’s dismissal of her music slides off her shoulders, and Patti begins working for something in earnest, leaving the viewer with an ominous feeling that the pieces of her life are being set up only to be shot down.

Though the film does not escape the trope of a main character who is dealt a seemingly insurmountable blow only to gain overarching success, “Patti Cake$” gives its characters a happy ending befitting of the tender nature of the film. The real victory is not found in the success of a final rap battle. The truly magical moment comes as the film ties together the entire plot in an emotional moment that honors Patti’s talent, her dreams, her mother’s dreams and the downtrodden landscape in New Jersey that fostered it all.

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