Danielle Macdonald and Siddarth Dhanajay in Patti Cake$.
It’s a very weird thing to be wary and suspicious of things that expressly have the purpose of making you feel good. The moniker of “feel-good movie” has become a bit of an insult in recent years – and with good reason. “Feel-good” movies have a mercantile, nakedly blunt purpose of pulling at your heartstrings and making you feel, if not better about yourself, good about things in general. This is, on its surface, an unarguably good thing – everybody wants to feel good. Feeling good means different things to different people, though, and even the concept of “good” is subjective. The Sundance sensation Patti Cake$ is full of this sort of cinematic “good feeling,” but it didn’t make me feel good. It made me feel cynical and annoyed, and this in spite of its many qualities.
The thing about Patti Cake$ is that, in a vacuum, it’s an extremely effective movie. It ticks all the boxes dutifully and with great purpose; it’s personable and well-intentioned and well put together. But in a world where Rocky and 8 Mile and Precious and Be Kind Rewind and Hustle ‘n Flow and a myriad of Sundance also-rans too serviceable to remember exist, there’s precious little reason for Patti Cake$ to stand out of the lot.
Patti Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) is an overweight, undereducated 20-something living in New Jersey with her underemployed mother (Bridget Everett) and sick grandmother (Cathy Moriarty). Patti herself toils away at a local dive bar, but her dreams are bigger: she wants to become Killa P, the illest MC in the world, alongside her best friend Jheri (Siddarth Dhanajay), a pharmacy worker who moonlights as the honey-voiced R&B loverboy who sings her hooks. No one takes Patti seriously around town – not even her own mother, who’s still reeling from an aborted career as a hair-metal belter, and certainly not Danny (McCaul Lombardi), the closest thing to a hometown star on the hip hop scene, even though he’s really just a two-bit drug dealer who works in his father’s pizza shop. A chance encounter with Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie), a goth-punk rapper who’s ostracized by the rest of the scene, leads to the formation of their group PBNJ and a glimmer of hope that something might happen to take them out of their dead-end lives.
The major difference between Patti Cake$ and its similarly-themed brethren lies mostly in the choice of protagonist. Patti isn’t a teenager, which would otherwise cement the film’s oh-so-precious Sundance (where the film was picked up for an impressive $9.5-million) pedigree. Making Patti a young adult adds depth to the story and also allows for it to be less of a precocious twee mess. Macdonald is extremely likeable and winning in the role, but unfortunately almost everything else seems to fall into place with fatal neatness.
For all of its poverty signifiers and little-guy-done-good attitude (the opening credits are even laid over a Springsteen song for maximum working-class Jersey cred), Patti Cake$ is so deeply indebted to every single underdog indie movie of the last 20 years that it never even remotely approaches anything that feels natural and organic. From the way director Geremy Jasper latches on to Hype Williams-style music-video iconography (people sitting on cars with the headlights shining directly in the camera, the #squadgoals walking towards the screen in slow-motion) to the way the film continually returns to the patina of the dirty suburbs, Patti Cake$ constantly feels like a put-on of the downtrodden and the less fortunate. There’s really only two ways a movie like this can go: either it’s straight-up triumphant or Rocky-level tragi-triumphant. I’ll spare you the spoiler, but it’s definitely nothing you haven’t seen before.
There are good scenes in Patti Cake$ – great individual moments and character relationships that shine through the strip-mall gloss – and great performances. But what comes across most is this feeling of crossover-appeal run wild, a film made to make confused middle-aged people in the flyover states cry over a genre of music they don’t understand and perhaps even actively despise. The desire to make a movie that appeals to the broadest possible audience is not a particularly worrisome one – no one wants to make niche art if they can help it. But the alternative is a movie like Patti Cake$, one that so actively believes in its own unique blend of herbs and spices that it completely forgets to dump it in.
All of this is why I feel bad that Patti Cake$ annoyed me so much – it only wants you to love it, and you can sense the desperation from a mile away. For all of its qualities, Patti Cake$ is dripping with desperation and Sundance-y feel-good vibes, and I’ve simply seen too many of these for a particularly middle-of-the-road incarnation to have any effect on me. When a movie’s express – possibly only – purpose is to make you feel good and it doesn’t, what’s left? That having been said, there’s someone out there for whom Patti Cake$ is cinematic perfection – but I don’t know that they’re reading this right now. ■
Patti Cakes$ opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 30. Watch the trailer here: