Friday Flicks: Patti Cake$

Takeaway: A hip hop movie where musical fantasy connects mother and daughter.

Patti Cake$ is first and foremost a movie about a daughter and a mother: two women separated by age, alcohol, and resentment, bound together by blood, love, and music. Well, two very different kinds of music.

In writer-director Geremy Jasper’s new low-budget hip hop drama, Danielle Macdonald plays Patti Dombrowski, a 23-year-old New Jersey bartender who mixes drinks at night, looks after her ailing grandmother during the day, and spends the rest of her waking hours writing and spitting rhymes. 

On the street, bullies and hustlers mock her weight by calling her Dumbo. But in her notebooks, at the microphone, and behind the wheel of her aging Cadillac (custom license plate PATTIWGN), Patti goes by another name: Killer P.

Killer P is a young woman who lives for music. As Jasper's camera rushes along empty pharmacy aisles to greet her strutting presence, or flies alongside her car to capture the exaltation of driving and singing while the stereo blasts her own music, Patti Cake$ returns again and again to music acting as Patti's triumphant, expressive means of escape.

For her mom Barb (Bridget Everett), music also functions as an escape, but one weighed down by desperation and denial. Barb visits Patti at the local dive bar each night to score free shots of cheap whiskey before taking the corner stage to sing karaoke and relive her teenage years as an aspiring rock diva. Disdainful of Patti’s interest in rap, going so far as to call her daughter a race traitor for singing music she finds insufficiently "white," Barb spends most of her time cloudy with bitterness and nostalgia for a youth she refuses to let go.

Most of the movie follows Patti as she, her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), and misanthropic goth rocker Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie) try to produce a rap record that will earn them all enough money and prestige to escape their provincial, narrow-minded  hometown. 

But while its plot meanders around the various travails that come with putting the band together and trying to keep it in one piece, Patti Cake$ finds its true emotional core in its portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship. It's one freighted with layers of rivalry, longing, embarrassment, pride, and a deep-seated, unbreakable connection.

Jasper frames the movie with two scenes, rooted in music, that emphasize the emotional proximity of mother and daughter. In one, that closeness cannot surmount the friction in the relationship. In the other, that closeness actually bonds, and mother and daughter are united as family, friends, and musical collaborators.

Towards the beginning of the movie, Barb and Patti square off at the corner bar, the former desperately exerting her power and immaturity over a daughter who is uncertain about if, and how, to police her mother’s misbehavior. 

Barb enters the bar in a tight dress, a coiffed hairdo, and a glow of mischievous disregard. She quickly presses her daughter to give her free drink after free drink, and publicly humiliates her when she tries to refuse. Barb is an irrepressible bully: an abusive mom masquerading as a high school terror.

But then, Barb slips into the fantasy of her music. Jasper stills the camera, focuses it on Patti and on Barb, and the two are able to connect in a way that the previous interaction rendered near inconceivable. Barb launches into a karaoke performance of a power ballad in which her voice soars and her defenses drop. Patti seems to see her mother for the first time. In this dank and pitiful bar, Barb emerges as a woman whose joy, life, talents, and purpose can bubble up through music, if only for a moment.  

But the revelation is not to last. The the nausea of the alcohol and the squalor of the dive bar quickly reassert themselves, implying that Barb's musical fantasy is still too selfish, still too confined by the past and ignorant of the present — and her daughter.

Towards the end of the film, Jasper reunites Barb and Patti in another fantasy musical context, but this time the roles are reversed. 

The setting is a rap concert in a Newark arena where Patti and her band are performing before a sold-out crowd. Here it is Patti who gets to lose herself in her music, share her talents and expose her ambitions for all to see, make herself vulnerable while also demonstrating her artistic authority on stage. 

When Barb wanders into the crowd and realizes the extent of her daughter’s abilities, the public performance suddenly shifts to one of intimacy between mother and daughter. Patti opens up her show to include her mother. The song is directed to Barb, but also comes to include her. Mother and daughter live out each of their musical fantasies, but this time together and as one.

As with many great hip hop movies, from Boyz N The Hood (1991) and Juice (1992) to the more recent Gimme the Loot (2012) and The Land (2016), Patti Cake$ abounds with ambition and reflection. Ambition to make money, get recognized, test the bounds of one’s musical talents, and ultimately leave behind a difficult home and a suffocating city.

But there is also plenty of reflection here, too, on how the environment in which one grew up has shaped oneself and one’s art, and on how the difficult people in one's life can be reached through music.

Patti and Barb find in music an opportunity to express their closeness in a way that the stress and disappointments of their day-to-day lives so rarely allow for. With microphones in hand, sometime rivals, sometime strangers become family again.  

Patti Cake$ is now playing at the Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas in downtown New Haven.

Click on the audio players below to listen to episode of WNHH's Deep Focus about moms in movies, and about hip hop movies.