First time writer/director Geremy Jasper has much in common with the scrappy protagonist of his new film Patti Cake$, opening Wednesday at the Cedar Lee. They both display some talent and have plenty of heart, and you'll find yourself rooting for both to succeed in the end. And to some degree, they both do.
Patti (Aussie Danielle MacDonald, in a breakout performance) is a lower-middle-class Jersey girl. She works at a dreary neighborhood bar to help support her boozy ex-singer, hairdresser mother Barb (New York stage actress Bridget Everett) and her chain-smoking, chair-bound grandmother (the always underappreciated character actress, Cathy Moriarty). Dubbing herself "Killa P," we see early on that Patti "has bars," as they say, showing off her rap skills with a wonderfully profane and satisfying drubbing of the neighborhood bully/local rap hero in a street-corner rap battle. It's these kinds of moments, where MacDonald's charisma is on full display, that keep you rooting for Patti despite the story's trafficking in a DJ's record stack worth of rags-to-riches cliches.
Patti dreams of rap stardom and sees her rhymes as the ticket out of her doldrums. Supported with blind positivity by her best friend and musical sidekick Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay, playing his role with earnest, comedic gusto), Patti endeavors to make a demo album and get it into the hands of her musical idol, the rapper and producer O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah, costumed oddly in anachronistic '90's garb). Along the way, Patti discovers Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie, from Netflix's The Getdown), a stoic noise-rocker-cum-genius music producer. He's got both talent as a producer and a secret, sensitive, soul — the same one that all indie love interests seem to have.
Patti faces some bumps along the way: A shoehorned "chance meeting" with O-Z doesn't go as planned, and her mother Barb seems at one point to be at the end of her rope. But it's no spoiler to tell you things don't end in tragedy. You'll recognize almost immediately that a film this breezy couldn't handle the weight of its protagonist finding ultimate failure.
Jasper directs the film sincerely, but with a kind of kitchen-sink approach, hurling every tactic of low-budget indie filmmaking at us — handheld shaky-cam, quick zooms, smash cuts, music cue drop-offs that punctuate poignancy, dream sequences, and fantasy trips — all in an effort to differentiate his coming-of-age indie from the piles of others. Some of it sticks, some of it doesn't. It's really the chemistry of the cast and the charming lead performance by MacDonald that keep us absorbed.
In the end, Jasper's Patti Cake$ is like a pop song with a good hook. You might find yourself smiling and singing along, but in the end, it's forgettable.