“Sometimes I wake up in the morning and it cuts me like a knife / I come face-to-face with my longing for another world, another life,” Bruce Springsteen sings over the opening and closing credits of Patti Cake$, the feature debut of writer/director Geremy Jasper. The lines come from “The Time That Never Was,” an outtake from the sessions that eventually led to Springsteen’s double-disc 1980 masterpiece The River. Springsteen began his career singing about characters who knew they could burst out of their humdrum New Jersey lives if they just got the chance, but by this point his songs had taken on a different cast. He was telling stories about people who knew they’d be forever stuck in the lives they were living. They’re two sides of the same quintessential New Jersey story: the dreamers who look across the river at the life just out of reach and those who’ve resigned themselves to staying put.
Both sorts of characters inhabit Patti Cake$, even if they take on forms we haven’t seen before. Jasper’s choice of protagonist marks one break with the past, and so do her dreams. Played by Danielle Macdonald, Patricia Dumbrowski leads a fairly humdrum life. She spends her days worrying about her family’s mounting medical expenses and her nights slinging drinks to mouthy customers at a dive bar seemingly intent on staging the state’s saddest karaoke nights. Occasionally old acquaintances bump into her and call her by her nickname, “Dumbo,” which has more to do with her ample frame than her surname.
But Patricia has another name for herself: Killah P. And when she closes her eyes, she floats into a psychedelic hip-hop video wonderland overseen by her idol, the rapper O-Z (Sahr Nagujah). It’s not just idle dreaming, either. Patricia can spit, and this hasn’t escaped the attention of her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), a pharmacist with musical aspirations who pictures a future singing the hooks on her songs. All they need is someone to make the beats and a chance to take it to the stage.
For a good 30 minutes or so, Patti Cake$ offers a new spin on a familiar tale. Patricia wanders Jersey streets where rap battles have taken over corners once reserved for doo-wop. The sounds have changed even if the dreams remain the same and the film at least feints at exploring why we gravitate to the music we love — and who has the right to claim certain genres as their own. Later, a character will accuse Patricia of being a “culture vulture” with no right to rap. Eventually, Patricia and Jheri become a trio after hooking up with a musician who calls himself Basterd, the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie), a pierced, black loner with a goth fashion sense, a fondness for metal riffs, and little apparent interest in hip-hop. The film leaves such questions dangling, but at least deserves some credit for raising them in the first place.
It’s also steeped in Jersey details, from the sparsely attended VFW hall shows to a scene in which one character leaves a Cookie Puss on a loved one’s grave. (There’s even a barfly character named “Joe Puppy,” an apparent deep cut nod to Tom Scharpling’s The Best Show, the quintessential New Jersey podcast.)
It’s all nicely played, too, particularly by Macdonald, a find from Australia in her highest profile role to date. She beautifully conveys Patricia ramping up her courage one degree at a time, fighting back the fear as she gets ready to perform. Just before doing battle on the streets, Patricia looks ready to collapse, but when Jheri tells her to “go motherfucking hard” and she lets loose, it’s electric. (Remarkably, Macdonald had never rapped prior to making the film.)
Then Patti Cake$ hits a wall of clichés, and hits it hard. Coming home one night, Patricia finds her mother Barb (Birdget Everett) in a drunken reverie holding an independently released album from the 1980s when she was the high-haired singer in a glam metal band. (She looks like she wanted to be Lita Ford and later the movie lets her sing Ford’s most famous song, “Kiss Me Deadly.”) Then follows a tale of woe, dashed dreams, and unplanned pregnancy. Both Macdonald and Everett play the scene as well as they can, but Jasper’s script lets them down, letting their exchanges dip deep into the well of melodramas past. (“You don’t have a musical bone in your body and you sure as hell can’t sing!”, etc.)
Then it keeps letting them down, trotting out a sass-talking grandma with, uh oh, health problems (Cathy Moriarty playing a character well beyond her years), an out-of-nowhere romantic sub-plot, and a big show that could make or break their future (and possibly heal Patricia’s relationship with her mother). The raw material is gritty enough, but once Patti Cake$ gets going it seems determined to sand away the texture that made in intriguing in the first place. You’ve heard this song before, and heard it done better.