Film Review – Patti Cake$
Writer/director Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$ (2017) has all the trappings of an underdog story. The hip-hop music will call to mind 8 Mile (2002) or Hustle & Flow (2005). As our protagonist delves into her fantasies of glamour and fame, we’re reminded of similar dream sequences from Precious (2009). Heck, the fact that the narrative hinders on the “go for your dreams whether you win or lose” theme is reminiscent of Rocky (1976). But although we recognize many of the elements that are at play here, the earnest tone along with some strong performances invite us to take this trip one more time.
As the main character of Patti, Danielle Macdonald has the charisma to carry the weight of the story on her shoulders. She has a natural feel to her performance – she can be funny or shy or rough around the edges. I’m not too familiar with the New Jersey accent outside of what I’ve seen on TV or the movies, but Macdonald seems to pull it off well (I was surprised to learn that she’s an Australian actress). She even has a nice flow and cadence when she raps. We learn that Patti is obsessed with hip-hop music. She dreams of becoming a famous musician, and spends nearly all of her time writing down lyrics in her notebook.
But life has thrown Patti a number of difficult obstacles to overcome. Not only is rap still a male-dominated genre, but the fact that Patti is white and overweight makes it difficult for her to gain respect for her rhyming skills. She can’t escape the unfortunate nickname of “Dumbo” thrown upon her by the neighborhood. The need for money forces Patti to work menial jobs at a run down bar and for a catering company. Her grandmother Nana (Cathy Moriarty) has medical bills that are piling up, and her mother Barb (Bridget Everett) shows no support for Patti’s ambitions.
Patti Cake$ works best at depicting what life is like as a marginalized member of society. There are very few who encourage Patti to pursue her passions. In most other cases, Patti would continue on the same path that her mother traveled. Barb was once young and vivacious, and was part of a band that very nearly broke into the big time. Now, Barb spends her days drowning in alcohol and random men, trying to be the carefree girl she once was. Patti sees this and wants more. With the help of her closest friend Jhen (Siddharth Dhananjay), Patti goes step by step to make enough money to create a mix tape that showcases how good she is on the mic.
Jasper’s direction keeps the tone light and often times funny, even though visually there’s a ruggedness that lends toward a documentary approach. He depicts New Jersey with grit, as though everything is put together by masking tape and cardboard. We visit dingy bars, graffiti-laced back alleys, and strip clubs where no one appears to be having a good time. Federico Cesca’s cinematography captures all of this with the usual hand-held, shaky frame that’s become a staple of low budget films. And yet, despite how grimy everything looks, the tone is almost too light. There are plenty of moments of levity, and even straight up comedy. One of the funnier sequences involves Patti employing her grandmother to participate in one of her demo tracks. It’s an interesting contrast between the two sides that almost becomes a detriment. There’s such a sweet nature that it almost undercuts the seriousness of the more somber aspects. Barb’s alcoholism is a legitimate problem when it needs to be, but when things turn good it get pushed aside as though it were irrelevant.
Outside of Macdonald, the second best performance comes from Mamoudou Athie as the punk rock rebel Basterd. Like Patti, Basterd is also an outsider. Where Patti is a white girl who loves rap music, Basterd is an African-American who calls himself an anarchist and plays experimental rock. He lives alone in a run down shack in the middle of the woods, and dismisses anything that he considers part of “The Establishment.” Even though Basterd says less than one hundred words in the entire film, Patti sees a kindred spirit, and invites Basterd to help produce music. His mysteriousness automatically makes him the most interesting supporting character. Basterd’s idea of “true freedom” is hopping on trains and traveling the country, completely off the grid. I wouldn’t mind seeing a film of Basterd doing that one day.
The narrative suffers the most when Jasper goes for the bigger, splashier dramatic scenes. One instance involves Patti’s run in with her hip-hop idol. The circumstances that made that encounter happen is highly implausible and the interaction they have borders on being cruel. It’s used as a means to push Patti through her character arc, but it doesn’t come off as an authentic moment – instead it feels forced and artificial. The same could also be said of the climax where, as is the case in all films this one borrows from, our protagonist gets the opportunity to achieve her goal. Not to give away details, but this dramatic high point was the least believable. The song choice was the weakest musical piece out of all the ones we hear, and the “twist” that comes literally takes the focus away from Patti. Her moment of glory is ambushed in order to redeem another character.
Patti Cake$ treads familiar grounds almost too closely, but there’s enough here to warrant a recommendation. The performances alone make it worth seeking out, I just wish there was more innovation in the material to make it rise above an already crowded room.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with writer/director Geremy Jasper.