As they do in every film, things really pick up in the graveyard. That’s where Patti Dumbrowski (Danielle Macdonald) wheels her sedated grandmother into a dark tunnel, over which someone has spray-painted the phrase “The Gates of Hell.”
Until this moment, Patti Cake$’s audience has struggled alongside Patti—aka Patti Cake$, aka Killa P—through scenes that explore her bleak, underemployed existence in suburban New Jersey, where she lives with her mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), and her ailing grandmother, Nana (Cathy Moriarty). Though Patti is kind and clever, she’s stuck working at the same bar where her mother frequently drinks away her paycheck, even as they struggle to pay Nana’s medical bills.
It’s a bleak setting many Americans will recognize: wide, treeless roads; trash-strewn strip mall parking lots; an inescapable sense of resigned hopelessness. But Patti perseveres, filling her notebooks with rap verses that she shares with her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). When she can’t rap with Jheri, Patti escapes into elaborate fantasies, floating through green clouds of Wizard of Oz–style haze and dreaming of winning the favor of her rap idols with her rhymes.
These fantasy sequences are paired with stomach-churning returns to the harsh reality Patti is asked to accept: Patti’s fat and broke, and she’ll never be a success, Barb tells her. In Patti Cake$, comedian Everett flexes her dramatic muscles, and her portrayal of Barb—who had her own dreams of stardom crushed by Patti’s father—is devastating. Writer/director Geremy Jasper uses intense close-ups for these mother-daughter conflicts, pushing every line of betrayal and misunderstanding to the front. It’s harrowing—and also weirdly beautiful, thanks to cinematographer Federico Cesca’s magic-hour lighting.
Patti Cake$ could easily be labeled a feminist 8 Mile, and at first glance, it looks just about identical: the fights with mom, the working poverty, the white rapper seeking to break into a traditionally African American art form. Patti Cake$ only escapes the 8 Mile cliché—the idea that it’s somehow heroic for a white person to succeed in a marginalized person’s world—on the strength of its actors, the versatility of its director (Jasper also penned Patti’s lyrics), and the fact that its script packs so much heart. While 8 Mile struggled under the weight of trying to remain true to Eminem’s account of his life, Patti Cake$—a work of pure fiction—feels much more real.
That’s why it’s so striking when Patti wheels her grandmother through the fairy-tale-like wooded area on the edge of their local cemetery, and into the Gates of Hell tunnel. Here the film takes a noticeable turn: Patti’s hustle to make her dreams a reality starts to inject a palpable magic into her actual life, and her fantasies appear less and less. It’s not a spoiler (well, not much of one) to note that, as Patti’s life gets better, the film’s reality-based scenes take on a consistent air of fantasy. As Patti Cake$ reminds us, reality is always stranger than what we can imagine.