In his feature film debut Patti Cake$, writer/director Geremy Jasper tells the story of aspiring rapper Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald). A young woman living with her largely immobile grandmother, and large and intolerable mother, Patti’s life is a thankless one, spending most of her time trying to hustle up work to pay the family’s bills. Her only escape is her fantasy of hip-hop stardom as she raps and jams in parking lots with her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). White, female and overweight, her attempts to be taken seriously are mostly met with ridicule until she meets Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a hermit and self-described satanist, who completes the trio by bringing the beats to back up Patti’s lyrics and Jheri’s vocals.
If you’re thinking Patti Cake$ sounds like it’s pretty much just 8 Mile with a heavy-set woman taking the place of melancholy Marshall, you’d be completely correct. Say what you will about Eminem’s vanity piece, at least it had a certain rawness and some complexity to its characters. Patti Cake$, on the other hand, is tragically formulaic, throwing every cliched story beat it can into the mix, leaving you cringing every time Jasper tries to pull on your heartstrings, or give Patti a moment of triumph.
While the plotting is extremely transparent and predictable, it’s an issue that’s highlighted by the film’s inconsistent tone. He never strays from this being a story about a woman challenging stereotypes and chasing her passion, but Jasper seems to have trouble deciding if this is an upbeat indy flick following three young adults as they find their rhythm, or a gritty drama about Patti trying to escape her miserable life and miserable(r) mother. A defter hand could have spun this dynamic into a richer experience, but Jasper is too clumsy in handling both sides of the coin. The comedy and moments of levity feel inorganic and shoehorned in, while, for the more serious material, Jasper just assaults you with a barrage of closeups and hopes it makes it feel raw.
The rapping itself is (thankfully) a bit more of a mixed bag. Patti, under her ‘Killer P’ handle (as well as bunch of other equally generic pseudonyms), proves to be a perfectly decent lyricist. Sure it’s all generic freestyle bravado about being the best and fucking a lot, but her lines are quick, creative, and bouncy. Problem is though (and I acknowledge this complaint kind of supports the movie’s thesis), that hip-hop, perhaps more than any other genre of pop-music, requires a certain presence to be able to pull it off. When everything is about how damn cool you are, you need to actually sell it, less your audience find you very lame. While Patti’s rhymes are mostly pretty fine, you’re grimacing as soon as you feel them approach, and at that point it’s already too late.
All of that said, Macdonald herself puts in quite a fine performance, doing well to balance both the cocksure wannabe rapper and the insecure and nervous 20-something. I’m not sure I entirely buy the rapid transitions between the two personas, but I certainly appreciate the authenticity she brings to both. Given how much the story had me rolling my eyes, it’s hard not to be impressed that Macdonald was still able to bring me back in her moments of being overwhelmed or desperate (though the script rarely let me revel for too long). Sadly though, the same can’t really be said of the rest of the cast, though I feel the shoddy dialogue and stilted melodrama is more the culprit than the actors themselves. This is especially true of poor Athie, who is completely shackled by his almost comically (intentionally, I hope) bland and stoic Basterd.
I have a suspicion there is a certain demographic of young, hip-hop loving misfits who might find a special spot in their hearts for this movie. Unfortunately, if you don’t find yourself in that niche, Patti Cake$ simply doesn’t have enough personality or creativity to justify the two hours of your time.
THE REEL SCORE: 5/10