When Australian rapper Iggy Azalea waxes poetic about the struggles she went though to make it big in the rap community on her song, “Work”, she repeats the refrain “No Money, No Family, Sixteen In The Middle of Miami“. That brief portrait of a young artist enduring poverty? It’s her way of establishing credibility amongst the hip-hop community – perhaps their most difficult litmus test for success. She has everything working against her: she’s a white, foreign, woman who’s trying to appropriate a culture built on the experience of the black American male. But she argues that she too has struggled, suffered even. She’s paid her dues. Her presence in the rap community today shows that she’s not as iconoclastic as her genetic resume might beckon. She is on the surface everything that it isn’t, yet she seems to understand the current flow of the community and tap into that. Call it appropriation, bandwagoning, what have you – she’s not really seen as an outsider figure nowadays. In fact, some might describe her music as pop. The music you might hear Australian actress Danielle MacDonald espousing in Geremy Jasper’s, Patti Cake$, is definitely not any shade of this pop hip-hop. And if this year has any great stories about outcasts elbowing their way into the music world, this film might just be the one. In this festival darling, we also follow a young, white, female rapper. This one is roughing it in the New Jersey slums with her mother and grandmother, as opposed to, you know, solo in Miami. But like Iggy before her, she wants out. Patricia, our heroine, has some notable features which separate her from the seemingly endless array of new females in hip-hop, the most prominent being her figure. And that figure is, ahem, quite large. Her appearance, goals, and swagger all create a character that seems so detached from reality – so outside the community she longs to join, that her enduring spirit provides an amiable base for a film about blazing your own trails as opposed to following others. As this outsider tries as hard as she can to get out, she also unwittingly, invites us in.
As if Patricia isn’t unique enough as a character, Jasper throws together quite a few randos to really create a team of misfits. In doing so, we find a strange kind of harmony between a group of people who can’t seem to fit in with society, yet fit in perfectly with one another. The film relies heavily on these quirky characters to surprise the audience with how distant they seem, yet how relatable they truly are. In the group, aside from Patricia, we have her best friend Jheri, who is a sleight Indian pharmacist (the most attractive of the crew by far). He serves as Patricia’s buoy, keeping her afloat during the most distressful situations. Like a Timon to her Pumba (perhaps more Simba in this film), his quips are indicative of their symbiotic dynamic. He comes off as a loudmouth, big-talking, pestery brother who gets them in trouble often, but with the best of intentions. He’s the singer(?) of the group? I don’t know what his exact role is, okay? But he sing-raps the hooks of the songs in the background. Next up is Bob, the ‘beats’ guy in the group. Bob is a black, death-metal-playing, pierced-faced anarchist who mutters morbid, clipped statements about the meaninglessness of everything. Despite this, his apathy, which the film decidedly promotes, seems to be an endearing personality trait. You can’t help but look at the grim New Jersey surroundings and think, ‘Bob’s right. This does suck’. He’s meant to be the outcast to trump all outcasts, but generally gives the vibe of a moody teenager (though he manages to be relatable). In terms of outcasts, the final person who rounds out the group as more of a fringe, “guest star” member, is Patricia’s chain-smoking, wheelchair-bound grandmother, Nana. Nana is irreverent, grouchy, and lewd, but her relationship with Patricia overshadows all that. She’s a good grandmother, whose constant prodding for limmies (limericks Patricia composes for her) is seen as a purposeful challenge for her lyrically-oriented granddaughter. She helps nurture and train Patricia like Micky trained Rocky. All four together they look like the strangest amalgamation of humans one might ever conceive. The audience rides along with these weirdos and comes to appreciate the different strengths of each one. These four ride a shallow wave of expectation, which comes crashing down with a symphony of heartwarming feelings. By the time we see the group fully composed and ready to perform at their first event, they no longer look like a bunch of weirdos – they look like they belong together. They’re ‘the outcasts’ and they know how to own it.
The problem is that they want success and it’s difficult to be successful if you’re seen as a fringe player. The problem is, naturally, that Patricia just doesn’t look the part. No one, outside of Jheri, believes she has a chance. She’s determined to prove everyone wrong and she’s driven primarily by her idol, a mythical hip-hop figure named “Oz”, who, like his namesake, is always seen shrouded in green smoke. Patricia, like Dorothy before her, believes this mysterious icon is the key to her (musical) success. Throughout the film, she has fleeting visions of his validation, imagining herself beside him in green, hazy rooms. To the viewer, he’s her catalyst towards success, the driving force behind her art. He is a vision of everything rap is to her. He’s the community. He’s what’s at the end of the yellow-brick road and they are determined to get there. Initially, Jheri and Patricia try to make their own duo act work, but as is expected, it’s not quite as palatable for the masses. They try an event at an open mic night and are shortly escorted off stage. Their follow-up act is fortunately the mute anarchist Bob who also gets booed off stage! They say misery loves company, and though Bob doesn’t like anyone, Patricia seems to recognize that he also isn’t as he appears. And thus, with her determination to befriend him (and literally breaking into his house) they create the group affectionately known as PBNJ (each representing a letter of their name). Like Dorothy accompanied by the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion, they all set off in hopes of finally making it ‘in’ after so many years of being ‘out’.
While the musical career seems to be Patricia’s primary focus, she has other things she’s forced to contend with. At home, she’s the primary breadwinner, using her measly bartender paycheck to keep three generations of women afloat. Her mother, a pivotal character in the film, is a complicating figure in her life. She was a singer in her youth and almost tasted success herself, something she finds herself reminding Patricia of constantly. That chip-on-her-shoulder aura has transitioned into a nasty drinking problem, which results in Patricia having to hold her mother’s hair after she belts out drunken Heart songs at the local bar. Their dynamic is the source of several ugly scenes (and a very important side plot) where they weigh fate and the effects of expectations which weigh in the balance. Her mother has a mixed case of narcissism and alcoholism which results in a destructive spiral for the whole family. Turns out, that makes Patricia responsible for a lot she shouldn’t have to be. She’s not big on the idea of her daughter’s burgeoning rap career, and suggests she gets a new job working for a high-end catering company that works lengthy events across town. The catering job is exhausting as hell and not as rewarding as it could be, considering her mother pockets a good chunk of what Patricia makes. Still, the job gives her a taste of what might be at the end of that yellow brick road, what life is like for the ‘in’ crowd – and whether or not it’s as good as it seems after all.
But just when the film sells you on the idea that our beloved oddballs are going to achieve their goal, they end up having a major reevaluation. In one pivotal scene, Patricia is working a catering job that takes her to some high-end mansion on the other side of town. This place is the image of opulence, almost to a rococo level. This is where she wants to end up, it’s the life she’s always wanted, and it’s exactly what’s at the end of the yellow brick road. It’s a place that only exists in the movies and that’s really hammered into your brain when we realize that, of course, the place is owned by Oz, her mysterious rap idol. Dorothy…ahem… Patricia comes face to face with Oz and realizes the horrible truth – Oz is better as a symbolic figure. When she meets him, just as Dorothy does in her adventure, she realizes that his big presence is nothing more than a projection and that in reality, he’s nothing more than a man hiding behind an illusion. Unfortunately for her, this shakes her very musical foundation. Everything she had been working for the whole film had culminated in this one, big, reality-shaking experience. It’s a moment that Jasper successfully makes as disorienting for the audience as he does for the characters. Without revealing too much, the film manages to continue to descend from there. It plummets to it’s emotional nadir before charging to the emotional climax, which makes it redeeming and satisfying by every measure. By the end of the film, you, Dorothy, Patricia – all realize that validation isn’t necessary for success, especially from your cohorts. Success requires talent. And a lot of it. At the end of 1939’s Wizard of Oz, Dorothy reveals that she had everything she needed to succeed all along and at the end of Patti Cake$, we realize Patricia does as well.
Patricia, Jheri, Bob – they’re more than outcasts or outsiders, they’re underdogs. Patti Cake$ brings together a grungy, disheveled looking crew in a town that looks like a second choice location for the film Gummo. Jasper give you an aesthetically bleak film, from the scenery, to the dialogue, to the characters. He places you in a rough environment so you can feel how difficult it is for these characters. Because you’re going to have your own reservations about their success. They’re battling these barriers which are old as time – barriers that are built with bricks of expectation. But that makes defying such expectation all the more satisfying. Sure this film is about a group of misfits coming together and standing in the face of adversity (I mean The Wizard of Oz allusions are everywhere). But this film has the heart of a Rocky movie (number one, not five). It aims to give you the best possible outcome that you can believe in. In this year and this world, which itself seems so disheveled and bleak, isn’t it timely to see an underdog victory that you can’t believe you finding yourself relating to?
Because this film does that to you. It puts you on the outside and forces you to look inside yourself. Patti Cake$ shows you that it’s not really about making it ‘in’, it’s about looking in and finding the courage to know that you’re actually out. Who cares where you ‘make it’ if you can be ‘making it’ at all. Be an outsider. Own your brand. Because even though you may feel like you’re all alone with your peculiarities, you may find that what helps you stand out may actually help bring you together with others. Last year was dubbed ‘the year of the outsider‘ by a few different news outlets. It applied in the political sense, it applied in the social sense, and it applied in the cultural sense. This year? Who knows. Iggy Azalea had her latest album Digital Distortion released in the most haphazard way. Jezebel just a few days ago released an article chronicling her career called “The Making and Unmaking of Iggy Azalea“, detailing her eternal desire to be accepted on the inside of an increasingly popular community. It seems like the right thing to do, yet it was her undoing. Because if there’s anything culture has taught us in the last few years, it’s the value of authenticity. We might not live the lives of Patricia or Jheri or Bob, we might not live in the gritty New Jersey suburbs, and we might not have aspirations to become huge global rap sensations (speak for yourself). But we do recognize that Patricia is real. I mean, yes, she’s being played brilliantly by actress Danielle MacDonald, but there’s nothing fake about her. Her, Bob, the rest of them – they aren’t trying to be anything that their not. MacDonald may hide her Australian accent behind a sloshy Jersey twang, but underneath it all, she’s real too. And with so many films nowadays showing beautiful, talented, outcasts achieving greatness over the course of ninety minutes, it’s kind of nice to sit back and watch a mis-matched group of people who could easily be your neighbors, get their own taste of underdog victory in a warm, authentic way. And in this day and age, that kind of inward movement seems outside the box. Because watching the way they coalesce and go from the outsiders ‘in’ towards each other, it makes us feel like were ‘in’ with them.