Patti Cake$ is the feature-length debut for writer/director Geremy Jasper. The story is about Patricia “Patti Cake$” Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald), an overweight aspiring rapper from Bergen County, New Jersey, who desperately wants to make a name for herself while struggling to support her single mother Barb (Bridget Everett) and her physically ill aunt Nana (Cathy Moriarty). Personally, I used to be huge into rap music so I was naturally excited to see this type of story brought to big screen; and while Patti Cake$ isn’t perfect, it’s definitely one of the better movies hitting theaters this summer.
On a technical level, this film is great for the most part. It uses beautiful cinematography effectively and is mostly shot on location, proving once again that filmmakers don’t need insanely high budgets to make good movies. Both the editing and directing style is a blend of music video and documentary, which sounds fascinating, but this fantastical approach is way too ambitious for an already unique story idea and often appears as style over substance. Fortunately, the music is top-notch and the people responsible for developing it from the writers to the producers should all receive praise — too bad the soundtrack isn’t already out.
Most of the performances are fantastic. Each actor sounds incredibly natural with Danielle Macdonald stealing the show as the titular protagonist. She isn’t that generic “fat girl who too often cracks jokes about her weight”—quite the opposite actually. Patti cares more about her rhymes than her image which is inspiring on its own right. Macdonald gives the character some much-needed humanity and I can’t wait to see what she does next. Patti’s chemistry with the other characters is also worth mentioning, especially with an experimental music producer Bastard (Mamoudou Athie) who starts out as an introvert, but eventually becomes fond of Patti. The only out-of-place character is a big-shot record label producer named O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah) who only shows up in Patti’s dreams at first, but when we meet him in person, it’s as if the actor is in an entirely different movie — that could have actually been the point of this scene but Jasper doesn’t do a great job at communicating it to the audience.
Writing is the weakest element of Patti Cake$, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. One critic who saw the movie at Sundance called it “La La Land with rappers”; however, that film used its music to move the plot forward where Patti Cake$ spends too much time on the rapping and not enough time on making us care about Patti as a character. If the film was slightly longer, it wouldn’t suffer from this noticeable pacing issue. Patti Cake$ also doesn’t do much narratively different even though it includes a rather interesting story concept. Fortunately, the filmmakers put plenty of heart into it. Those who aren’t big rap fans probably won’t find as much enjoyment in Patti Cake$ as everyone else; in fact, one scene features Barb telling a policeman who’s making music with her that Patti is becoming a rapper and he responds sarcastically asking both women which gangs that they are a part of. This moment in particular implies that Jasper knew which audience he had in mind for this film and it therefore ends up seeming somewhat self-indulgent. Perhaps Jasper just needed another screenwriter to help him better realize this material so that he can improve the delivery of these messages.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Patti Cake$ isn’t the best movie of the year but it’s still one that I would recommend seeing in theaters this summer. If not for better execution, this inspiring story with its great soundtrack and amazing lead performance could’ve been great, but it’s at least good overall. Regardless of saying that this film possibly won’t appeal to non-rap fans, it’s still one that people should see if they ever have a chance.