More Sing Street than Inside Llewyn Davis, Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$ frames the artistic struggles of an aspiring rapper as a series of saccharine inconveniences. The film’s heroine, the daydreaming Patti (Danielle Macdonald), aka Killer P, aka Patti Cake$, snaps back to reality (oh there goes gravity) as she works at a dive bar, struggling to help support her out-of-work mother (Bridget Everett) and ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty). Despite mounting hospital bills and enduring the ridicule of fat-shaming New Jerseyans, Patti’s momentum knows no patience, as she pours her pain into notebook after notebook in hopes of one day making it big.
First-time filmmaker Geremy Jasper shoots much of Patti Cake$ in aggressive close-up, in what so frequently registers as an emotional miscalculation in tone and mood. Whether it’s his wavering confidence in the strength of his material or a desire to highlight the performances of the film, the tenor of Jasper’s direction is utterly one-note and ambitionless. The same can’t be said of Danielle Macdonald’s performance, which sustains the picture through its rockiest passages. Whether it be freestyling with her best friend Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay), humoring her mother’s embarrassing self-destructive tendencies, or seeing the gears of her intellect in action during a particularly engrossing rap battle, Macdonald’s performance imbues the film with genuine humanity.
Yet it’s in the film’s duality of tones that makes Patti Cake$ so unconvincing. Here we have a film that presents New Jersey as a crippling cesspool of crushed dreams (those with layovers in Newark will find this quality readily identifiable) yet every obstacle presented against Patti and Hareesh is cleared without much protest. Its sentimentality is out of place for such an impoverished milieu, with Jasper either unwilling or unable to bridge the film’s tonal idiosyncrasies. There are moments, particularly one where Patti encounters the film’s fictional rapper that she worships, where Jasper unleashes vivid and unflattering clinical truths that suggest a deeper reading of its lead character. Or consider the abusive relationship Patti has with her mother, someone whose ambitions were crushed as she desperately attempts to cling to some measure of youth by flaunting her sexuality. The dynamic between the two frequently reads like a nightmare, but it’s to Jasper’s toothlessness that he’s unwilling to confront that relationship with any real guile. Which in itself serves to underscore the problems I had with Patti Cake$: it suggests something meaningful without acting upon it.