I love an underdog story, don’t you? A hero overcomes the odds stacked against her, perseveres despite all of the obstacles placed in her way and all of the people who tell her she is either too much or not enough of something to achieve her dreams. The formula is so simple yet so rewarding. It’s a formula you’ve spent most of your life perfecting, and though your rise to fame is a slow one, you are proof that hard work, stick-to-itiveness, and unwavering belief in oneself is the recipe for success.
It’s almost perfect that you were cast as Barb, the mother of Patti Dumbrowski in Patti Cake$, a film that follows a poor, overweight young white woman from New Jersey on her quest to become a hip-hop superstar. In fact, I’m not sure which character you have more in common with, Patti, or Barb. You spent a quarter of a century working in bars and singing cabaret before you were “discovered” and cast as “Drunk Party Girl’ on Sex and the City. Now, less than a decade and several guest spots later on shows like Inside Amy Schumer and a memorable appearance on Jimmy Fallon, you’re starring in a show for Amazon loosely based on your life, called Love You More.
I have a hard time not getting swept up in these types of gritty, feel-good flicks. It’s gratifying to watch someone struggle and then finally reach their potential, which is why it’s easy to overlook some of the more egregious plot contrivances and predictabilities that underdog films rely on. But these movies are all about the journey, not the destination, so we’re lucky in Patti Cake$ to have such a likeable cast to travel with to its satisfying, albeit inevitable conclusion.
Your motto is DDHD – Dreams Don’t Have Deadlines, and it’s easy to see that had you not believed in yourself and worked your ass off, you might have ended up like Barb – a once-promising singer-turned-alcoholic hairdresser who spends her nights belting karaoke, drinking, and puking at the dive bar where Patti works. Instead of the usual acrimonious familial relationships that are the hallmark of most underdog movies, Patti loves Barb, and accepts her for who she is, she just doesn’t want to end up like her. This is 8 Mile without the anger. Hustle & Flow without the bitterness. And with a welcome, raunchy sense of humour.
Patti, AKA “Killa P”, knows exactly who she is, and who she wants to be. With her loyal hype-man/BFF Jheri, a metal-head squatter named Basterd, and her wheelchair-bound Nana in tow, Patti sets out to be discovered by her personal Jesus, a rap impresario named O-Z of Emerald City Records. Patti’s confidence is infectious thanks to her portrayal by Danielle Macdonald (an Aussie actor who learned to speak and rap in a Jersey accent), a relative newcomer who imbues Patti with unapologetic wisdom and sexuality. Patti is tough as nails, with a soft center, who struggles to balance her ambitions with the reality of living a hand-to-mouth existence in the economic wasteland that is 21st century America.
Patti Cake$ is the first feature from writer/director Geremy Jasper, who opens the film with Bruce Springsteen’s The Time That Never Was, a nod to Jersey’s working-class hero, and a move that would seem cheesy if it wasn’t so damn apt: “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and it cuts me like a knife…” Indeed, Jasper very narrowly escapes schmaltz-dom many times but he is saved by the fully realized characters brought to life by you, Macdonald, and Cathy Moriarty who is barely recognizable as the salty, loveable Nana. Part of Patti Cake$ charm is in its stripped back, basic style. It is completely devoid of glamour and it seems to revel in its low-tech, unpolished approach. This is a simple story, well told, but in no way is it small.
You, more than anyone would know that there really is no such thing as an overnight success. Patti Cake$ has been picking up accolades on the awards circuit (including a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and a Best First Feature nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards) not just because it’s a crowd-pleaser that audiences have wholly embraced, but because it celebrates the dreams of an ordinary person who, it turns out, is rather extraordinary. That’s the kind of story, hackneyed or not, that we really need more of right now.