Flashdance. 8 Mile. A Star is Born. You’ve seen them, or something like them: a downtrodden character with the odds seemingly all faced against them wants to be an artist of some sort. They don’t make a lot of money, and that big opportunity comes in the end where they channel all of their frustrations, passion and drive into one big number that hopes to make the audience roar with applause.
The first screenplay and feature of music video director Geremy Jasper, Patti Cake$ follows a similar trajectory: In Lodi, New Jersey, Patricia (Danielle Macdonald), aka Patti Cake$, White Trish and Killa P (among others), is a bartender who works to pay for her dying grandmother’s (Cathy Moriarty) mounting medical bills—not an easy task, given that her alcoholic mother’s (Bridget Everett, Barbara Jameson) shots come out of Patti’s paycheck. With no college education, stability at home or financial prospects for the future, Patti goes to bed dreaming of the day she’ll be a master emcee, performing in front of her thousands of fans.
Those dreams tend to go away as quickly as the morning sun. Cake$ establishes that it’s not the lifestyle she’s chasing after; it’s what living out that dream would entail. Her best friend, Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay) is a pharmacist (and also an aspiring rapper) who pushes Patti to get into a game she doesn’t readily want to be a part of. Her weight makes her an easy target for sexist men, whether she’s in rap battles by the gas station or merely standing in the street. And while Barbara is drinking and lamenting her failed music career, Patti goes to open mic sessions which attract people like Basterd, a black, multiple-pierced experimental metal musician who lives in solitude in a cabin in the woods.
You probably didn’t need me to tell you that Basterd, Patti and Hareesh join forces, and yes, that they even record a single in the cabin. (Grandma Moriarty supplies guest vocals.) Part of the charm of Patti Cake$ is that it isn’t surprising or new and that it’s easy to watch without surrendering your brain.
That’s what sets Cake$ apart from similar offerings, one which cast established singers or uses dancers and dubbers for the big moments. A native Australian, Macdonald’s Northern Jersey accent is so accurate that I thought she was a local. When the four record their big song, it’s memorable because they’re accumulating their talents for the first time. It reflects the technical side of artistry: being able to put the pieces of your brain together to create something unique to you.
Such is the real uplifting quality of Cake$. It’s a slice-of-life for the lower-class dreamers who dream because they have to—the grungy landscapes and limited work opportunities don’t inspire promising careers, and with troubles inside the home and out, the artistry manifests itself from within as a force of nature.