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Non-Review Review: Patti Cake$

Patti Cake$ is intermittently charming, but far too familiar.

Patti Cake$ is a familiar breed of indie movie. It is the story of a young protagonist trapped in a small town and surrounded by eccentric characters who yearns to escape, but finds herself hemmed in by lack of opportunity, by family and by sheer economic pressure. It is a quintessential triumph-over-adversity narrative, albeit approached from the slightly skewed perspective of a young white female rapper in New Jersey.

Let’s get this Patti started in here.

There are some interesting elements of Patti Cake$, especially the performances by actors like Danielle Macdonald and Bridget Everett. There are moments when this familiar template works very well at hitting particular cues, whether the mundanity of Patti’s day-to-day existence, the emotional realism of particular relationships in her life, or even a really good and well-timed joke. However, those moments are largely fleeting. For most of its runtime, Patti Cake$ is a perfectly adequate story of what it feels like to socially strive.

Patti Cake$ doesn’t have any new rhymes, and so settles for some well-worn beats.

She’s got drive.

Patti Cake$ is the first feature film from writer and director Geremy Jasper. In some respects, Jasper seems at odds with himself over the course of the film. Jasper has a lot of experience directing music videos, and that shines through Patti Cake$. Even on a low budget, the film looks impressive. The film is perhaps a little too long for its very straightforward narrative, but there are moments when Jasper seems to be hitting the same rhythmic peaks as the eponymous character.

There are moments in Patti Cake$ that look beautiful. An introductory sequence juxtaposes pictures of the title character’s childhood with the harsh landscape of New Jersey, suggesting a life reflected in topography. Jasper has a pretty impressive eye for framing and composition, as demonstrated by simple and elegant shots of the camera following its lead character into a dark tunnel or panning down from the night sky past the New York skyscrapers to the title character sitting on the hood of her car staring out at the world beyond.

The great and powerful.

There are moments where Jasper struggles a little bit. Most obviously, he strains with the heavily stylised introductory dream sequence, which looks more like the faded memory of a modern music video than anything particularly awe-inspiring. Taking a cue from David Lynch, Jasper tries to literally shade his story with touches from The Wizard of Oz, but it feels clumsy and heavy-handed. Barring an effective drug trip in the first half, Patti Cake$ plays best when it is grounded.

Jasper films his actors and their surroundings almost like a documentarian. There are lots of candid off-centre shots of characters talking, a choice that makes them seem more authentic and genuine. Establishing shots tend to be clean and no-nonsense. Static shots of small details that provide a sense of place, as if part of a tourist’s slideshow documenting the reality in which these characters live. Group scenes are shot with a shaky handheld camera, as if desperately trying to suck in as much detail as possible.

On the hood, not in the hood.

As a director, Jasper seems invested in authenticity and realism. There is a true grit to the world in which the central characters live, whether reflected in the clutter of their living spaces or the cobbled-together technology at their fingertips. However, as a writer, Jasper is much more fanciful and conventional. The grounded direction of Patti Cake$ is undercut by the incredibly conventional nature of the script.

Patti Cake$ follows the template for a quirky indie “star is born” story almost perfectly. At points, the script almost feels like it is checking items off a list: profane but endearing older relative; substance abuse within the family home; crippling debt; flawed idol; quirky friends; the pull of a mundane (yet reliable) job against the gamble of striking it lucky; disillusionment and public humiliation, building to an inevitable redemption narrative.

“Old Grandma” is the original O.G.

The characters just blaze through the clichés. Reflecting on the potential success of another rapper, Patti notes, with no small envy, “He’s gonna get outta here.” The characters sit in New Jersey staring out across the river at the skyscrapers, yearning to get “across the bridge.” The movie might be about rap music, but the soundtrack cannot resist the gravity exerted by Bruce Springsteen, who helps establish mood and tone early in the film.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this template. In fact, the fact that it has become so common as to be instantly recognisable suggests that there is an efficiency to it. However, the very conventional nature of the plot jars with more visceral direction. The movie almost comes off the rails at the climax, offering perhaps the most predictable and straightforward ending to this sort of story in a way that doesn’t necessarily feel earned.

It’s a rap.

That said, there are some moments when Patti Cake$ works well. The cast is charming, especially Danielle Macdonald as the title character and Bridget Everett as her mother. There are some jokes that land very well, and there are some moments that perfectly capture the sense of listness and disillusionment of watching life go be. However, these moments are fleeting, and are undercut by the demands of more conventional and more familiar story beats.

There is something endearingly retro about Patti Cake$. At certain points, it even feels like a weird period piece; the characters distribute their music on CDs and the computer in Patti’s home looks like something from the late nineties. Various adult characters in Patti Cake$ seem confused and angry about the very existence of rap music, as if it was something alien and unusual against the backdrop of smalltown New Jersey. In some ways, this feels like an admission of Patti Cake$‘ familiarity. The film evokes a time when this story might have felt fresher.

Lose Yourself.

At one point in the film, a character takes Patti to task for not being genuine and for living somebody else’s artistic dream. The audience is clearly meant to sympathise with Patti, but there is some truth to this sentiment. As much as Patti might be trying to chart her own course, she never strays too far from the well-trodden path.

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