Editor-In-Chief Sofia Kourous Vazquez reviews Geremy Jasper’s Sundance hit.
Finally, I’ve found it. My song of the summer. I know I’m late — September is practically upon us — but take my word for it, glam power ballad ‘Tuff Love’ from the Patti Cake$ Original Soundtrack is an anthem. Despite all the hip hop tracks dominating this film, which follows small town, New Jersey gal Patricia “Patti” Dumbrowski (Danielle Macdonald) who dreams of being a rapper, I latched onto the odd one out. I guess this is a metaphor for how I felt about Geremy Jasper’s first feature. I didn’t love it, but there were some gems, namely Bridget Everett’s performance as the protagonist’s partygirl mother (and one-hit-wonder singer behind ‘Tuff Love’) Barb. Though superficially cute and rather endearing, Patti Cake$ is formulaic in plot and confusing in tone, torn between being tongue-in-cheek and completely earnest.
Patti Cake$ consists of some fun stuff and some not-so-fun stuff, and it’s hard to be sure what the film wants you to feel; a humorous, fantastical dream sequence may closely be followed by a scene of uncomfortably real-life hardship without smooth transition. Patti aka Dumbo aka Killa P wants to be a rapper but feels suffocated by her circumstances. She’s trapped in her run-down and unexciting New Jersey town, stuck paying the family bills with money from her gross and low-paying bartending job, and tied down by her relationships. She tends daily to her very sick grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) and often has to clean up after her embarrassing mother, holding back Barb’s hair while she vomits in the seedy toilet of their local bar. Her ticket out of this situation is pursuit of her passion for hip hop and talent for rhymes, so she teams up with her sidekick friend Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay) to make it happen. You can literally guess the rest.
Hareesh and Patti’s friendship is clearly set up to be a crowd-pleaser. They exchange cheeky banter and indulge their fantasy larger-than-life rap star personas, but most of the time I’m left wondering what Hareesh is actually doing there. Though he’s Patti’s number one cheerleader, the dream seems to be a bit of a joke to him, plus the guy contributes no talent to their rap act; Hareesh’s high pitch vocals are completely slathered with auto-tune. Then there’s Patti’s grandma, her other big supporter, and again a one-dimensional character clearly set up to generate laughs. I mean, what’s funnier than a stubborn old lady getting sampled in a hip hop track and recruited into a rap group, right? Ha ha. The character I had the most issues with, however, was Bastard aka. Bob (Mamoudou Athie). I could rant for ages about this guy, a Satan-worshipping but harmless and shy outsider who utters some of the cringiest lines of the film, but to protect anyone from even more spoilers it will suffice to say that he is yet another example of superficial and confusing writing. With all of these characters, it’s unclear whether Patti Cake$ is trying to poke fun at tropes or wholeheartedly embrace them. I’m not sure failed execution of the former is any better than the alternative. If you’re going to subvert formula, you really need to do it right.
The two ‘loudest’ performances in the film, however, do save it from disaster. Danielle Macdonald keeps a controlled rein on Patti, who could easily become as ridiculously over-the-top as some of the other characters. Despite her confidence when performing, there is a quietness and thoughtfulness about her that really trickles through. Refreshingly, Patti’s weight, used against her in a few moments of the film, does not take over her character’s narrative (no classic ‘fat girl’ humour, no gimmicky overcompensation in sass) or play a large part in her motives. Macdonald and Everett, as Barb, work well together and cast a believable light over an equally sad and funny mother-daughter dynamic. They look like real people, and they act like them too — this latter point definitively setting them apart from the other characters.
My biggest issue with Patti Cake$ is its quashed potential. Though containing a healthy selection of elements with the capacity to elevate the film out of its indie predictability — the depressing suburban American aesthetic, the distinct and charming protagonist, the vibrant soundtrack — it’s completely overwhelmed by predictability and a handful of ridiculous characters.
Patti Cake$ is an entertaining watch, but if you’re looking for a fun hip hop dreamer’s tale, you’re better off checking out The Get Down (Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series), which has similar vibes and better execution.
Patti Cake$ is out in UK cinemas from the 1st of September. Watch the trailer below: