Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Can she rap her way out of Jersey?

Gritty and energetic, Patti Cake$ gives Danielle Macdonald a breakout role.

It's important to know that Patti Cake$, a movie about the emergence of a female rapper, takes place in the lower-class depths of New Jersey. First-time writer/director Geremy Jasper understands that for some folks, Jersey can be the place that nurtures them and the place they most want to escape. This dual pull infuses Patti Cake$ with dynamism.

Jasper tells the story of Patti Dombrowski, played by Australian actress Danielle Macdonald. A heavy-set young woman, Patti dreams of shaking the world with her rap lyrics.

It's easy to accuse Patti Cake$ of being a formula job about a no-name woman who tries to buck the odds and make it big. It's also fair. Patti Cake$ qualifies as a kind of a rap Rocky built around a female character who's taunted by neighborhood jerks who derisively call her "Dumbo," a nickname she's been saddled with since childhood.

Fortunately, there's more to Patti Cake$ than the formula suggests. Among other things, it introduces audiences to Macdonald, who brings swagger, pathos and an ability to rap to the screen.

At 23, Macdonald's Patti calls herself "Killa-P" or "Patti Cake$," alter egos that help her survive the hard life to which she has been assigned.

So let's be clear. I'm not a rap enthusiast, but I recognize that rap requires a significant skill set: the ability to rhyme, the ability to create a narrative -- and, perhaps above all, a vocal dexterity that can turn a voice into an instrument of street poetry, blunt assertion, and staccato riffs.

I've read that Macdonald never had rapped before landing the part. I don't know who schooled her in the fine points of rapping, but she's plenty convincing as the driving force behind a group called PBNJ, initials derived from peanut butter and New Jersey.

Joining Patti in PBNJ are Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay) and a character who dubs himself Bastard the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie). A strange, nearly silent dude, Bastard lives in a shack in the woods and provides music and rhythms for the group.

Jasper mixes kitchen-sink grit and fairy tale aspiration to create a movie of power and pulse.

Patti, who works as a bar tender, lives with her mother (Bridget Everett) and her ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty). Mom, who once aspired to be a singer, drinks too much and relies on Patti to help keep the family afloat financially. Mom also makes fun of Patti's dreams.

But Mom is an alcoholic with a twist; she actually can sing; her abilities come into play during the film's appropriately rousing finale.

Populated by the aging and embittered, the bar in which Patti works stands as a metaphor for dead-end Jersey lives that wind up stewing in a shot-and-a-beer world they'll never escape and which Patti longs to flee.

Patti's role model is a rapper and impresario known as O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), a member of rap royalty who lives like a pasha in a beautifully appointed home where Patti finds herself working a party after landing a catering job. Patti decides to take a chance and rap for O-Z, who cruelly dismisses her, accusing her of being a "culture vulture," a white person who appropriates black culture for their own purposes. I wish the movie had allowed for a little more reflection about that, but it clearly sets up O-Z as a rap elitist, one more obstacle for Patti to overcome.

The movie soothes some of the sting of cultural appropriation because "Bastard" is black and because Hareesh, who works in a pharmacy, has Middle Eastern roots. PBNJ is a multi-cultural experience.

Audiences pretty much will know where Patti Cake$ is headed, but its familiar path is paved with a Jersey spirit that's reinforced by the introduction of a Bruce Springsteen song during the end credits.

Not surprisingly, the movie ends at a contest in Newark where wannabe rap stars square off against one another. It's a fitting denouement for a movie that, like its main character, succeeds in firmly planting its feet and announcing, "I'm here. Deal with it."

In the movie, the period in the preceding sentence probably would be followed by a profane exclamation point, a word beginning with "m" and ending with "rs." And, yes, there's an "f" in the middle.

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