‘Patti Cake$’ is a festival darling of a film

As a lover of cinema, I prefer to just have a film to watch. Maybe a comfy chair, maybe a few friends or even an auditorium full of strangers. Of course, when you follow film closely, you learn quickly that there is more than just the movies; there is everything surrounding them. There is the buzz. There are the films that get booed at Cannes and walked out on at Toronto. There are stories that run right alongside the films that become impossible to avoid.

Take “Patti Cake$,” the debut feature from director Geremy Jasper, which I saw this week at SXSW. If you follow film journalists on Twitter (the vaunted cabal often referred to as “Film Twitter”), then you likely got word in real time the incredible reaction audiences had at the Sundance premiere of the film. The word “breakout” was often attached while it was scooped up by Fox Searchlight. It’s cemented as a Sundance success story, which is why I hoofed it over to the Stateside Theatre. I should have known better.

The story is a simple one: Patricia “Patti Cake$” Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) eeks out a meager existence in a dead end North Jersey town, her sights set on a hip-hop career across the water in Manhattan. When she’s not serving up drinks in a cartoonishly shithole bar, she’s either holding back the hair of her alcoholic mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), or spitting rhymes with her perpetually-optimistic pharmacist best friend, Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay). As medical bills rack up for her ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty), Patti needs to step up her game. Hoping her musical aspirations start turning into cash, she coaxes Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a musician who lives in a shack in the woods loaded with musical and video gear, into producing a demo for her fledgling group: PBNJ.

The trouble is simply that “Patti Cake$” lacks any texture. The characters are flat, and the story arc is almost clinical. It comes as no surprise that Jasper and his film went through the Sundance Labs. Every last ounce of the film feels workshopped. I feel like I could set my watch to when the conflict is introduced, when the main character’s luck runs out, when her friends rally around her, when redemption comes in an unexpected form. It’s all so familiar.

This is frustrating because of the performances. The film’s many plaudits cite Macdonald’s turn as Patti, the sort of thing careers are made of. She brings depth to the one character that really has any to chew on. You root for her. You worry about her when she makes supremely dopey decisions, because you believe she would. Everett, as her self-medicated and delusional mother, brings incredible fire to a role that doesn’t deserve it. She is wonderful, but the character is written as a one-dimensional obstacle to Patti’s success.

And that’s the main issue. Patti is really the only developed character. Everyone else is written as automatons set in place to help Patti reach her own personal revelation. And when that revelation (that she has value and talent, damn them all!) comes at a big final concert it’s… strange. Taking all she has learned over the course of the film, she decides to become more like her mother, melding the Jersey rock of Barb’s youth with something similar to the rapping Patti had been doing throughout the film. It’s a saccharine moment that goes overboard when Barb shows up at the performance.

Ultimately, “Patti Cake$” is what I would call a “festival darling.” It played extremely well at Sundance and seemed relatively well-recieved here at SXSW. It follows the structure of a festival film religiously, and has so-far been rewarded immensely for that. The best thing that has come out of it is a slew of performances from relative unknowns; it will be interesting to see where all involved go from here.

And as for me? This is not the sort of work I like to seek out at a festival. I could write ad nauseam about festival culture and the sort of films I want to see. I’ll spare you the full lecture, but the bottom line is that when I’m bouncing from screening to screening, I want to see work that is surprising. I want to see films that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Trouble is, festivals tend to reward new takes on the same old tale. “Patti Cake$” fits that bill perfectly.

“Patti Cake$” is being distributed by Fox Searchlight. No release date has been announced yet.

[photo: Fox Searchlight]

Tags: Patti Cake$, SXSW