Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) is a 23 year old woman who lives with her mother (Bridget Everett) and grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) in suburban New Jersey. She works as a bartender, but that is not enough to make ends meet with her grandmother’s medical bills and her mother out of work. She has dreams of leaving this rundown life behind her and moving to New York to pursue her rap career.
Her boyfriend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) pushes her to this end, goading her into rap battles and studio sessions. He is blinded by this escapist dream, and his lack of skill in relation to Patti is telling. Patti herself finds it hard to get wrapped up in this grind to get her music out there given her mother’s dissatisfaction with Patti’s inability to make ends meet for the family—her mother is still trapped in the dream of her own long-lost singing career.
If this plot summary is starting to sound familiar, that’s because the film Patti Cake$ is not much different than any other “breaking into the industry” narrative. The characters in the film all fall squarely into the established archetypal role of this type of story.
This is the major failing of Patti Cake$. The film prides itself on its unique character representations in a narrative about rap. To its credit, the characters show a lot of promise early on. Certainly, Macdonald and Everett bring an immense amount of heart and gravitas to their roles.
However, the plot is endlessly predictable. The first half of the film sets up the characters and the central struggle in a way where you can string together a full prediction of the conventional end that the film could take.
There is room in the film for unique things to happen. This subversion of convention, unfortunately, never happens. The second half of the film will play out exactly how you expect it to, to the film’s fatal detriment.
With its uninspired plot, Patti Cake$ tries to distinguish itself in other ways. Namely, its original music lines the film with boom-bap energy. The diegetic mixtape that the film admits is “rough” gives the film a nice shine to it, even if the film mainly just reprises the same song throughout.
The film produces this nice soundtrack and the young breakout talent of Macdonald. Beyond that, it doesn’t succeed in much else. The film is a predictable, forgettable industry pic with glimpses of something new and different, glimpses that never come to anything.
Patti Cake$ is not likely to do for its director what it will do for its lead. The vision of Geremy Jasper, both narratively and visually, is not of the breakout variety. The camera, even in inherently dramatic scenes, only acts to distract the viewer from the strength of the moment.
This is most clearly evidenced in an early rap battle, where Patti Cakes gets her first chance to show other rappers what she can do. It is a natural moment of tension and emotional catharsis, but the camera chooses to ineptly follow her every movement within the tight circle, making the shots appear like a jumbled mess. When we should be exhibiting Patti’s impressive lyrical prowess, we are instead distracted by the artifice of the camera. The visual style takes us out of one of the best moments in the film.
Patti Cake$ is a significant disappointment, particularly given that the film acts as the discovery vehicle for Danielle Macdonald. It shows glimmers of promise before undercutting that with rote storytelling and a lack of dynamic visuals. This is wrapped up in energetic music, but that is not enough to put a veil over the flatness of the film.
Patti Cake$: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)