There is a land across the Hudson River from New York, where Bruce Springsteen blares on the radio, highways snake around industrial sites, and dreams pale against the Manhattan skyline. That land is New Jersey. And I, like the aspiring rapper at the heart of the movie Patti Cake$, am all too familiar with its shapes and contours, its strip malls and dive bars, its tree-lined suburban streets. I, like Patricia Dombrowski, grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey. While watching Patti Cake$, I recognized the movie's accents, attitudes, and inside jokes with such shocking accuracy that the Leonard Cohen lyric floated through my head: “I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor.”
Patti Cake$ is a great movie. But for someone who also grew up with big dreams in New Jersey, it’s downright cathartic. As Geremy Jasper's film shows, the road outta Jersey takes more than a car ride over the George Washington Bridge. It's a road that — pardon my metaphor — must first be taken within.
Patricia, aka Killa P, is 23 years old, but high school hasn’t ended for her. Walking down the street in the first scene, her fantasies of rap stardom come to an abrupt halt when her old classmate drives behind her and calls her Dumbo, a name she garnered in childhood. Instead of roving the hallways, old high school bullies work in pizza shops, deal drugs, and beat around the same old side streets. Throughout the film, her high school reputation confines her as much as her suburban setting.
Her ticket away from her former self, and away from New Jersey, are her amazing rap skills. When Patricia participates in an impromptu rap battle in a gas station parking lot (so New Jersey), her former classmates are visibly surprised at the fact that, as it turns out, the girl they mock contains multitudes.
Surrounded by peers who taunt her and adults who condescend to her, Patricia's problem is only partly one of geography. The real problem is that most everyone around her fails to imagine what she could be, instead of what she is currently: a bartender, a slob, a woman who can’t pay her grandmother’s medical bills.
When Patricia's friend tells her, “You have more creativity and imagination in this little finger than everyone else in this town put together,” he means it. Patricia's gift and curse is that she imagines more for herself than high school forever. Her ambition renders her a black sheep with other characters, especially with her mother, Barb (Bridget Everett).
Her mother, an alcoholic whose pregnancy with Patricia derailed her singing career, lives the bitter life straight out of the song "Glory Days." After the rap battle, a cop checks Patricia's last name and asks whether her mom, his high school classmate, still has those pipes on her. Barb, now a woman whose career amounts to drunk karaoke, polishes her former self like it’s the only trophy on the shelf in their messy house.
As Patricia continues write and produce music, with help from the rest of her PBNJ rap group, she broadens others’ perceptions of her. In everyone's eyes, including her mother's, she becomes more than an heavy girl with curly red bangs to everyone. That — the defying of other people's expectations — is the road out of New Jersey.
New York, glittering in the distance, serves as an apt metaphor throughout the film. In Bergen County, the skyline creeps up on you in unexpected places. On a brief curve in the highway, silhouetted against the twilight. Driving on the Palisades, buildings rise across the river like spears made of stars. In New Jersey, you’re acutely aware of the city of giants, and that you weren’t invited to join the party.
Patricia never makes it to New York. In fact, her career’s most triumphant moments take place in New Jersey. Her final song is about her home: unabashedly, inevitably, always, New Jersey.
This movie so empathetically cradles the characters at home in, as comedian and Jersey native Chris Getherd calls it, this "weird place." The drunks at the bar, tattooed pizza parlor attendants, the surly grandmothers, the girls who can’t shake the feeling they were born on the wrong side of the Hudson: Patti Cake$ brings us into their world — my world! — and in that community, a sense of humor coexists with a sense of pride.
So, while I watched Patricia and her best friend conspire, laugh, and sketch out their dreams at the diner, I felt a surge of camaraderie. As someone who spent many midnights over diner chocolate cake, would know what it’s like to live in a holding pen of a state. And I know, like Patricia, what it’s like to love it, too.
Patti Cake$ comes to theaters on July 7, 2017.
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