The danger of coming into the world as a “film festival sensation” is that, for all the value of that initial buzz, the people who create it represent only a fraction of the people who will actually see it. The rest of the movie-going public will instead experience the film outside of that rarified air, not only without the blank slate that greeted that initial audience, but with months of hype and expectation to reckon with – and will often find themselves disappointed. (I’m as guilty of playing a part in this as anyone, and there are plenty of hyperlinks to make that point, but it’s probably best to go with this one.)
Often, what makes these festival faves most puzzling is not their inscrutability or experimentation, but their utter conventionality – films that somehow dazzle the supposedly cynical critics and industry types at Sundance or Toronto yet clearly traffic in the same tired conventions of thousand other movies, films that you might confuse with Hallmark Originals if their trailers weren’t branded with festival laurels. Patti Cake$ is better than that; it has some emotional resonance and its fair share of laughs. But it’s a story we’ve seen a million times before, and that seems like the one quality a big-sale indie film shouldn’t boast.
It concerns Patti (Danielle Macdonald), a white Jersey girl who dreams of success as a rapper. Her fantasies of record deals and hype music videos are a long way from reality – she tends bar (and cleans toilets, and sets up the karaoke machine), takes care of her Nan (an unrecognizable Cathy Moriarty), and seems the sole steady breadwinner for not only Nan but her mother Barb (Bridget Everett). Mom rolls into the bar most nights, for free drinks (“Don’t you want your ma to have a nice time tonight?”) and to sing karaoke.
Writer/director Geremy Jasper understands the power of sincere corn, and there’s a great scene early on where Barb sings “These Dreams” on the karaoke machine as she and her daughter lock eyes – a moment of real connection, sharply punctured by a hard cut to Patti holding her mom’s hair as she tosses those drinks back up into the bar toilet. The juxtaposition tells their whole story, though the song is carefully chosen; not much later, we discover that Mom fronted a metal band back in the day. “We were so fuckin’ close,” she tells her daughter wistfully, before pivoting to implicitly blame the girl for her failure: “You can’t be pregnant in leather.”
Now, there’s a lot more plot in Patti Cake$, but there’s a pretty healthy chance that, based on what you’ve got thus far, you can guess at the rest of it. Will Patti encounter resistance to her musical aspirations, because she’s white and female (and full-figured to boot)? Will she find like-minded talents that share her dream, and enable her to take the leap? Will they encounter setbacks and breakdowns, but ultimately triumph? Will sickly, wheelchair-bound Nan survive the picture? Will Patti and her mom bottom out emotionally, before reconnecting via their shared love of music? Will Barb finally come to accept her daughter’s talent by not only seeing her perform but, yes, appearing at the back door of the venue at the last possible second? (This is the second movie this month that trots out that old chestnut, but at least Logan Lucky treats it like a cliché, and winks at it.)
To be fair, Jasper’s script attempts to subvert our expectations regarding these pat situations, with a couple of early opportunities and plot points that don’t go exactly as expected, but that’s merely a matter of modifying the pay-offs while leaving the well-worn set-ups intact. There are bit and pieces here that work – Macdonald is a spirited, charismatic actor, and a genuinely skilled musical performer, without which the picture would fall completely apart. He captures the truth of being an amateur, and feeling like one (particularly a scene where she’s intimidated and infantilized while visiting a studio space under a pet shop in Newark, c’mon now). And this viewer is always a sucker for scenes involving the making of music, a bit of magic that may as well be witchcraft to these untalented hands, so the dramatizations of collaboration here recall similar, wonderful scenes in Hustle and Flow, Ray, and American Hot Wax, among others.
But that’s the point, “among others”; this is ultimately a very familiar story, told in a very familiar way. It’s a crowd-pleaser, to be sure (among its producers: Home Alone director Chris Columbus), and filled with beats that fulfill that premise, like Nana singing along to Patti’s garage rap in the backseat. But its likability feels too calculated, right down to the subject matter; I’d love to see someone crunch how many films have been made about white rappers, compared to African-American ones (just a guess, but it probably doesn’t match the actual ratio in the industry). Patti Cake$ isn’t a bad movie. It’s fine. Is that enough?
“Patti Cake$” is out Friday in limited release.