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Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 12:04 am

Cast saves Cake$

Danielle MacDonald as Patricia Dowbrowski in Patti Cake$.

 

Patricia Dowbrowski (Danielle MacDonald) knows there’s more to life than just working odd jobs in New Jersey and cleaning up after her alcoholic mother. She sees the high life in the rap videos she watches again and again and even fantasizes about chillin’ with her idol O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah). Yeah, she knows where she wants to be, but damned if she knows how to get there. Her working-class neighborhood consists of nothing but dead ends, many of which she will explore in vain, hoping they’ll provide a way out.

The plot in Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$ is about as old as stories themselves, and the reason it was made and the reason we respond to it is because we can’t help but root for the underdog. Perhaps it’s because we identify with the character travails that these films resonate. This premise works in the world of sports (Rocky), music (Whiplash), high school (October Sky) and just about any arena that has a pecking order. Patti Cake$ doesn’t get any points for introducing a new form of combat for its character to struggle in – look to 8 Mile and Hustle and Flow for exemplary examples of the genre – but it does get by thanks to the efforts of its fiery cast as well as its unique perspective.

One of the best things about the film is the way Jasper captures the gritty, run-down nature of his native Ridgefield, New Jersey, cast here as a blue-collar community that hope and opportunity have left far behind. Patricia escapes through her dreams of success and the rap songs she writes with her partner, Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay). Their rhymes are good, but the songs are missing something that eclusive techno composer Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie) contributes. Throw in some dour line readings from Patti’s grandma (Cathy Moriarty) and suddenly these four lost souls become the group PBNJ, press their first CD, and do their best to get the word out that a new force in rap is on the streets of New Jersey.

The story proceeds as you expect it will; the quartet encounters one setback after another before a bit of success comes their way, providing just enough spark to keep them going. Jasper’s script provides perhaps one too many conflicts for Patti to handle, as she not only has to contend with her ailing grandmother and mess of a mom, but lack of employment and an odd love interest. Yet Jasper keeps the story moving at a brisk pace, never allowing us to question in the moment the contrivances at play. The catchy music also proves a worthy distraction.

More than anything, the cast sells the film, all truly invested in their characters. There’s not a bit of artifice at play from any of the performers; you feel as if they’re all from the streets, having endured far more troubles than anyone should. There’s a haggard look to all of them, as well as a sense of dogged perseverance the viewer can’t help but relate to. As a result, you can’t look away, despite knowing the path the film is taking. MacDonald deserves special notice as she appears in nearly every scene, the young Australian actress carrying the film on her capable shoulders, and we willingly follow her every step of the way.

Much like the recent Logan Lucky, Patti Cake$ is an anthem to America’s blue-collar population, the ones who work but get nowhere, who hold on to the American dream, secretly knowing that it’s all a sham, compromising their vision, reining in their hopes as their plans fall apart around them. Small victories are necessary to keep them going, and Patti Cake$ reminds us of their power.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

For an interview with Danielle MacDonald and Geremy Jasper, go to the Cinemascoping blog at
http://illinoistimes.com.

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