Over the last two decades, Hollywood has produced its fair share of less than believable music films. Movies like Coyote Ugly and Glitter feature lead characters that somehow make their way from broke damsel to wealthy superstar—seemingly overnight. And while 2002’s 8 Mile or last year’s Straight Outta Compton are welcome breaths of fresh air in the genre, more often than not music movies have a formulaic, predictable and “fake” feel to them. But in the case of Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$, something entirely different, entirely special, and entirely real is portrayed.
Patricia “Patti” Dombrowski is an overweight, underpaid, and wildly imaginative nobody living in nowhere New Jersey. When we first meet her it’s in a dream. Green lasers and smoke light her path as she walks towards the throne of her idol, rap artist O.Z. “Welcome to the stage the newest artist signed to Emerald City Records,” he proclaims as she kneels at his feet. Then Patti wakes up.
Back to reality. Splitting her time between slinging drinks at a local bar and taking care of her ailing grandmother, it’s clear early on that Patti’s life options are pretty slim pickings. Her only solace is in writing poetry, or in the form of her best friend Jheri – a fellow rapper and her musical confidant. Together, Patti and Jheri are rap duo Thick N’ Thin – a skinny middle easterner and a plus-sized white girl dreaming of the day they get out of New Jersey with their million dollar recording contract. It’s that theme that carries us through the rest of the picture – a constant juxtaposition of fantasy vs. reality, of fear vs. bravery, of deprecation and the belief in one’s self.
One of the film’s most powerful moments occurs in the first 20 minutes, when Patti, a.k.a. “KILLA P,” takes on a male rapper during a battle in a parking lot. Initially, Patti holds her own against her opponent, spitting bars confidently with Jheri by her side. But she’s knocked down a few rungs in the rebuttal when he insults her weight, calling her “white Precious.” Nearly defeated, Patti’s saved by Jheri’s faith in her. “Go HARD,” he insists before she almost gives up. She takes a minute to collect herself. She kills it, and it’s in this moment you realize Patti Cake$ is more than just a music movie. This is a story about overcoming what’s expected of you. This is a story about judgments, of stigmas placed on people who don’t “look the part,” or are underestimated simply because of their appearance. In a nail-biting scene that lands Patti right in O.Z.’s private home on a catering job, she takes a big risk by free styling right in front of him before serving his cocktail. O.Z. listens, seemingly intrigued, then promptly dismisses her as he retorts, “stick to the drinks white girl.” It’s a gut punch, and a pivotal moment that could have squashed our heroine’s dreams of rap superstardom forever, but instead Patti ultimately looks inward and challenges herself to become a better, more authentic artist.
Patti Cake$ is an important film for anyone looking to make their name in the music industry, but beyond that, it’s an important story for anyone that’s felt defeated or held back by the way they look. It’s never pretentious or lofty in where it takes the lead characters, because this is a film about internal struggles as much as it is about external ones. And for women of size everywhere, a hero is born in actress Danielle Macdonald, who portrays Patti with a truly honest and fiercely relatable performance. As the film ends, Patti is once again in the presence of O.Z. –judge and special guest of the open mic showcase she’s entered with her band. But this time, his opinion of her feels a lot less important. After a brief awkward start on stage, she confidently commands the crowd: “Haters will hate on a heavyweight… cause revenge is a dish best served on a cold plate…The bigger the girl, the deeper the pain is…big girls we don’t cry so I rise like a phoenix.”