Out in the real world of 2017, the dominant theme might be “destroy everything,” yet a number of indie films this year have offered a much needed reprieve from that by focusing on sincere stories about escape through creation. These films don’t shy away from depicting the trauma and fear of the real world- it is in fact a key component of their aesthetic and messages- but by making the art that results from negative experiences the center of their stories, they provide a hopeful juxtaposition to works that provoke action by shining a light on brutality. And of the films doing this in 2017, Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$ stands out as perhaps the clearest distillation of this new sincerity in film.
The origins of Patti Cake$ stretch back to two forms of personal destruction Jasper experienced that fostered his own creative growth. The first of these was the dissolution of his band The Fever, which in turn caused Jasper to seek out new ways of expressing himself. The second sprang from Jasper’s post-Fever involvement with Court 13, the filmmaking collective that would go on to make Beasts of the Southern Wild, but not before spending half a year creating “Glory at Sea,” a short starring Jasper. Speaking with IndieWire, Jasper explained that despite quitting the production because of the chaos, the experience is what ultimately convinced him he could become a director and “demystified filmmaking” for him.
The demystification of art is at the center of Patti Cake$ as well. The eponymous character, perfectly portrayed by Australian newcomer Danielle Macdonald, lives in New Jersey with her mom (Bridgett Everett) and ailing Nana (Cathy Moriarty), dreaming of breaking out and making it big as a rapper. Patti and her friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) act out hip hop fantasies everywhere they go but they don’t know how to begin making those dreams reality, even as they recognize that they have more talent and charisma than their small town’s resident hip hop crew Goon Squad Mob. As far as Patti and Jheri are concerned, a musical career is something you always strive for but can’t achieve, unless you’re gifted with a big break or the resources to make it happen, but even on this front they’re at a loss since their fledgling attempt to “book” a recording session at a studio in the basement of a pet shop doesn’t go as planned.
What ends up demystifying the process for them is a serendipitous encounter with a secretive noisemaker going by Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie). Like Jasper’s former collaborators Court 13, Basterd makes art out of chaos, but thrives when given a more focused foil to bounce ideas off of. Patti ably serves that role, smoothening out what Jasper referred to in the “Glory at Sea” days as “little clunky, broken pieces of glass” but also pushing for a hardness in the sound to offset Jheri’s pop sensibilities. Working in Basterd’s shack, decked out like a serial killer’s workshop, the trio are finally able to escape the hostile world that bullies and ostracizes them and begin to fulfill their dreams.
Earlier this summer, Dave McCary and Kyle Mooney’s Brigsby Bear also explored how outsider qualities provoke artistry and added a component of therapy to it. In that film, Mooney’s character James has been forcibly alienated from the rest of the world by a couple who kidnapped him as an infant and raised him in their underground bunker with his only interactions with other beings coming from his daily viewings of a children’s show called “Brigsby Bear.” When the FBI uncovers the bunker and “frees” James, releasing him to his birth parents, he struggles to fit in and remains fixated on Brigsby, culminating in him recruiting his sister’s friend Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) to help him make new Brigsby adventures and finish the story.
For James, the art of making new Brigsby stories is therapeutic because it provides an escape to the best memories of his messed up childhood; other people’s interest in his Brigsby work is of secondary concern. That Brigsby ends up gaining a following is a happy accident but it also speaks to people’s desire to find something positive in fucked up situations. Brigsby Bear is a pure and consciously simplistic portrayal of the creative drive, a delivery of expression as something that comes naturally and isn’t motivated by a desire for success, similar to Jim Jarmusch’s recent film Paterson and its focus on a bus driver poet who is content to write only for himself.
But Patti Cake$ isn’t alone this year in its portrayal of an unabashedly ambitious protagonist seeking something better for her and her kin. Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky is equally committed to this concept, albeit in the creative world of heists rather than music. Like Patti Cake$, Logan Lucky centers around a family suffering from a number of unfortunate setbacks, with eldest son Jimmy (Channing Tatum) fantasizing about going through with the perfect heist and solving everyone’s problems. However, unlike Patti, Jimmy has a pretty clear plan to achieve this (and has the rules of that plan written out and pasted on his fridge), his chief obstacle is just convincing his brother Clyde (Adam Driver) it can work.
Not coincidentally, both Patti Cake$ and Logan Lucky are at their most thrilling when they’re showing the steps of their protagonists’ plans. Soderbergh always brings a musicality to his heist flicks, going all the way back to the Out of Sight days, and it’s a far more subtle and interesting musicality than the flashy style of Baby Driver (another 2017 film loosely fitting this theme of creativity as escape, though in its case with a far more bleak ultimate message). Soderbergh’s skill is in making even the most monotonous aspects of creation seem cool and Patti Cake$ connects with that by showing the musical process as something that is defined as much by failure and experimentation as by talent.
This is where much of the hope of these films come from. Other works that depict the creative process treat it as something far too mystical, an uncontrollable force that either inhabits you or doesn’t, but Logan Lucky and Patti Cake$ emphasize determination and a willingness to integrate failure as key components. Or to quote Jimmy’s heist rules in Logan Lucky: “Shit happens.”
Patti and the Logans are especially well-suited to dealing with that shit because their lives are surrounded by failure. Patti’s mom is a failed singer herself, who formerly fronted a hair metal band that fell apart when she got pregnant. Jimmy Logan’s football career stalled out after a devastating injury that later also caused him to be laid off from his construction job. But both characters integrate these specific failures into their suceeses, Patti by sampling one of her mom’s old songs, Jimmy by using the access from that old job for his heist.
But it’s a different failure that makes Patti Cake$ stand out so much within its particular subgenre and this year’s batch of sincere films. Throughout the film, Patti is driven by a need to catch the eye of local hip hop star Oz (Sahr Ngaujah) and get signed to his Emerald City Records label. Through determination and luck she manages to get in a room with Oz but instead of the normal musician origin story cliche of that resulting in a big break, what results is a devastating loss. Oz calls Patti a “culture vulture” and tells her she’ll never succeed because she’s just stealing from others. Initially, this prompts Patti to give up, but eventually it inspires her to look for the truth of her art and make music that better reflects who she actually is and what she’s escaping.
As saccharine as that might seem, the sincerity and rawness of Patti Cake$ makes it more believable and potent. Patti Cake$ is a hopeful and optimistic film but it’s also a film that makes no effort to gloss over the bleakness of our environment and the devastating effects of failure. It doesn’t shy away from portraying suffering but it suggests that power can be mined from that experience and in 2017, that feels like a more useful expression than endless brutal imagery and unsubtle demands to wake up.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover