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a wonderful New Jersey indie drama, imperfect but with a gigantic heart that earns it
It could be easy enough to pitch Patti Cake$ - it's 8 Mile crossed with Precious: Based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire (and Precious even comes up as a dis during a rap battle Patti has with a would-be also white male rapper) - but the execution is what counts. The director is a first-time feature maker, and it's impressive work because he makes the style immediate and raw, but it's not so heavy that it becomes oppressive (which was sometimes the problem with Precious), and he clearly is from North Jersey. This may be a small point, but sometimes a filmmaker may come to an area to make a film and it can be clear or you can tell they are there because perhaps a location scout thought it had "local flavor" or something and it doesn't really pop from the place and time. This feels, smells and is the dirty North-East Jersey suburbs (frankly I should know, I'm from this part of the country, I even recognize the "Raceway Park" radio ad that plays briefly), and so when the drama happens in this story, which is the kind that goes back further than the Eminem or Sidibe films, it earns its sentiment because he get the entirely sensory overload of this lower-middle-working class Jersey life.
Patti is also played by an actress who damned if I could tell for a moment she's Australian, and at first makes Patti seem like a tough young broad - working at a bar, doing her raps, trying to find a way she can breakthrough in this world she's in - but there's also a plethora of vulnerability and a sadness that is always underneath the surface. Macdonald communicates this at times in ways you can tell but in other ways where it's just a look or how she puts her head down or doesn't say anything. She's also working off a strong supporting cast with Cathy Moriarty as "Nana", her grandmother (and, eventually, an unlikely member of the rap group she forms, "PB&J), and especially Bridgett Everett, Patti's drunk not-even-has-been singer mother, who is perfect casting. There are also the other members of "PB&J", Siddharth Dhananjay as Patti's best friend (kind of a discount Aziz Ansari) and Mamoudou Athie as a seemingly unlikely new friend who is a... black anarchist metal-screamer who is really a soft-spoken son of a lawyer(!)
The filmmaker does an excellent job bringing us into Patti's day-to- day struggles and conflicts, down to the basic things of how she'll bring in money to support Nana's medical bills and whether she can keep and get better at a catering job. There's little details about how a woman like Patti, who is big but certainly not ugly or unpleasant as a person, that show her trying to figure out how to navigate the world she's in even as she's had to get a tough skin (which she has, but sometimes she can get pierced through by bullies and the aholes around her); an example of this is how her mother tells her she should keep a button open around her boss to try to get in good with him, but he tells her to button it back up. Whether it's just being professional or if he doesn't find her attractive is left up to the viewer to decide. Lots of moments and little touches are so great here (i.e. the cop who plays blues but looks down on Patti for taking that particular black music) that it all adds up to being a rich experience.
There are a couple of flaws which I wanted to overlook - as a filmmaker myself this was the kind of movie I aspire to make overall - but couldn't. I didn't find the sub-plot, if that can be called, with the rap god that Patti looks up to, named Oz or something like that, and how he actually comes into the film (I won't spoil it, but it's that typical "don't meet your heroes" thing, which is fine, but the filmmaker goes too far with the contrivance). I also wanted to know more about the mother, why she didn't work (aside from the booze) and why it all made everything so hard on Patti, that was left unclear and not in a way that was satisfying. And near the end in the climax there are a couple of touches that seemed a little too neat and tidy.
But these are not major complaints, only things that I can't help but notice as they are touches that make it a little more conventional after a first half that seems to be so rich and even inspirational; my 8 Mile comparison isn't being facetious, though I'm sure a lot of other movies since Emimem's have tried. The heart here could be sentimental in other hands, but the hands that it's in understand how to take things to a grungier level so that what are conventions get elevated by the truth in the characters and actors and the atmosphere. We also love Patti and genuinely want her to succeed, so every little bump in the road (or the much bigger ones by the 2nd half) become all the more painful. On top of all this... the raps are mindblowing. Remarkable!
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