There’s an undeniable neatness to the concept of an indie film, about overcoming socioeconomic obstacles to realise your dreams, being plucked from relative obscurity for wide release. As with Michael Showalter’s delightful The Big Sick, earlier this year, Patti Cake$ – from feature-newcomer Geremy Jasper – is a beneficiary of such a ‘rags to riches’ journey, having been snapped up by Fox at Sundance for an impressive $9.5m.
Concurrently, the film itself tells the story of Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald), a young woman from New Jersey who dreams of being a rapper but is held back by her financial woes, alcoholic mother, sickening Nan, and the general expectations of society. She’s too white for RnB; overweight and cruelly judged for it. Whilst, as a wannabe rapper, Patricia goes by the name of Patti Killer; since childhood, she’s been derided as ‘Dumbo’. Presumably, as in: ‘when I see an elephant fly’. No, it’s not subtle but ssh.
Yes, Patti Cake$ is a film so formulaic that I spent two thirds of its runtime wondering what impact one character’s piercings would have on a later, inevitable plot development. At all points, it’s obvious that this character will do that, and – of course – that character will do this. You know where and when the peaks are coming and you know when a bad choice is going to backfire, resulting in a critical a loss of confidence. It’s a drawback that will always hold the film back from untempered success. When your Nana gets a cough in Hollywood, take out insurance.
That said, formulas are so for a reason and Patti Cake$ is among the better films to follow one – albeit religiously so. When the preposterously uplifting conclusion does come (as you know it will) the buzz of triumph delivered is as strong as any similar film has ever managed. Think: Dirty Dancing meets Juno, via Sing Street.
Patti represents many in society; she is talent, swaddled in insecurity. At the age of 23 she is overwhelmed by that crushingly relatable sensation of having achieved nothing in life thus far. ‘My verse is full of curses cos I’m stuck in dirty Jersey’ she raps, early in the film. Patti’s ability is evident and charm is infectious. It takes a hard soul not to crumble in willing her to succeed.
Opportunity arises when Patti comes across Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), an alternative artist with ‘something to say’, and – more importantly – recording equipment in his shack on the other side of a dark bridge tunnel. Along with her best friend Jheri (the pair style themselves as Thick and Thin), played by Siddharth Dhananjay, Basterd and her Nana (Cathy Moriarty), Patti sets out to produce a CD. They’re old school, a character later pointing out that no one uses CDs anymore, and they call themselves ‘PBNJ’.
The naivety of the filmmaking behind Patti Cake$ shows. Jasper’s favouring of close ups and handheld shots betray a background in music video production which, while no bad thing, doesn’t transfer to the big screen with total ease. The script, also by Jasper, is similarly rough around the edges, leading to a film that feels just a little overlong. Jasper, however, has a keen eye for comedy – Patti Cake$ is often very funny – and there’s no denying the raw truth in his writing. Jasper, like Patti, grew up with a desire to ‘escape’ New Jersey, and, also like Patti, experienced the harsh realities of breaking into the music industry.
Also to his credit, Jasper has found a rising star in the shape of Macdonald. At the very heart of the film, Macdonald holds things together through her endlessly endearing performance. Moriarty’s Nana gives too a delightful turn, whilst Bridget Everett walks the fine line of comedy and tragedy with a grounding balance as Barb, Patti’s mother.
Patti Cake$ is a story about and for the underdogs of the world. Where it lacks in originality, it is has plenty enough warmth and humour, not to mention a decent original soundtrack, to carry audiences right through to its typically rousing climax.