It’s hard to compare Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$ to anything besides Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile (2002) and Craig Brewer’s Hustle and Flow (2005). At face value, comparing Patti Cake$ to the other noteworthy hip-hop-centered films of the past decade-and-a-half feels a bit lazy and reductionist. But they’re also the films that writer and director Jasper pulls from the most, living somewhere in the middle between 8 Mile‘s underdog tale and Hustle and Flow‘s occasional cleverness and inspiration when it comes to the creative process. And it might even feel a bit pat to say that Patti Cake$ lives somewhere between 8 Mile‘s humorless grit and Hustle and Flow‘s more satisfying storytelling as far as quality goes, but that’s exactly what Jasper’s film manages — and maybe the only comparisons it deserves.
Australian actress Danielle Macdonald plays Patti, a white trash Jersey girl who lives with her alcoholic mother (Bridget Everett, Trainwreck) and sickly grandmother (Cathy Moriarty). She bartends at a bare-bones dive, barely making ends meet as she tries to pay off the family’s medical bills while dreaming of becoming a hip-hop star with her friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) and escaping her dead-end life and dead-end town, where she’s been doubted and picked on her whole life.
As a foundation, this is fine, if not wholly inspired, though I will say that Jasper’s obviously put a lot of thought into the world his movie inhabits. But even then, the film never gets far beyond Patti’s general hard luck in life, dabbling a bit in familial melodrama. For the most part, this isn’t handled horribly, as the film has a good grasp on the complexity of Patti’s relationship with her mother, whom she both loathes and adores. That relationship is among the more genuine things in the movie. And the general underdog nature of the film — Patti and her crew of misfits (including a quiet anarchist Goth who makes industrial music (Mamoudou Athie) — is engaging enough. But Pattie Cake$ gets some crucial elements wrong, and that keeps it from going beyond just fine.
For me — and this may definitely just be a matter of taste — a lot of the world-building that Jasper’s created simply feels a bit flimsy and lacking. Namely, the music isn’t very good, and I can’t imagine anyone really giving it much attention in the real world. This is a huge problem for a movie that’s wholly based around music — there’s just nothing to invest in, even if Patti’s a sympathetic and likable character.
Much of the movie just comes up a bit short, never having a moment, for instance, as satisfying and luminous as Taraji P. Henson hearing her singing voice for the first time in Hustle and Flow. From an emotional standpoint, Patti Cake$ is missing something special, something that goes beyond being a simple, solidly constructed indie flick, never quite hitting that crowd-pleasing ending it so desperately wants. It doesn’t ruin the film and it shouldn’t necessarily keep anyone from watching it, but this does keep Jasper’s film from being wholly realized, instead of purely the voice of potential. Rated R for language throughout, crude sexual references, some drug use and a brief nude. Opens Wednesday, August 30 at Fine Arts Theatre. Opens Wednesday, Aug. 30, at Fine Arts Theatre.