'Patti Cake$' Tries Too Hard to Be a Feel-good Movie

'Patti Cake$' seems too in love with its own willingness to showcase a young heroine who does not fit the usual screen standards

Danielle Macdonald, left, and Siddharth Dahanajay in 'Patti Cake$.'
Jeong Park/AP

“Patti Cake$” – the first feature of Geremy Jasper, known until now as a director of music videos – has charm and certain admirable cinematic virtues. These qualities, however, only bring into relief the ongoing crisis of America’s so-called indie filmmaking scene. Movies belonging to this category are usually first shown at the Sundance Film Festival, and if they are well-received there, companies begin to vie for the distribution rights. For an indie picture to get that far, it has to be different from mainstream Hollywood fare – but not too different: It must still follow the formulas to which Hollywood religiously adheres as a guarantee of success.

All this is true of “Patti Cake$,” whose heroine is not the kind of leading lady we usually encounter in American movies. She is ably played by Australian actress Danielle Macdonald, who is likely to be cast from now on in every film requiring a talented plus-size actress (indeed, after all the praise heaped on her for “Patti Cake$,” Macdonald was cast alongside Jennifer Aniston in Anne Fletcher’s “Dumplin’,” which focuses on a beauty pageant in which Macdonald’s character insists on competing).

Dulling the message

But Jasper’s movie seems too in love with its own willingness to showcase a young heroine who does not fit the usual screen standards. In general, though “Patti Cake$” resolutely depicts a run-down, unattractive social and human environment, which Jasper captures well with the help of cinematographer Federico Cesca, the movie also wants to be endearing and heartwarming.

What “Patti Cake$” ultimately accepts is the idea that movies should make us feel good when we leave the theater, and this undercuts any severity it might have had and dulls the message it might have carried. In other words, it’s not surprising that Twentieth-Century Fox subsidiary Fox Searchlight picked up the distribution rights of this low-budget picture for a reported $9.5 million dollars, and that “Patti Cake$” even got a special screening at the last Cannes Film Festival.

Macdonald plays Patricia Dom-browski, a girl from the outskirts of New Jersey, seen here as a remote wasteland from which the Manhattan skyline looks like a far-off dream. Because of her size, she has been nicknamed “Dumbo,” but she prefers “Patti Cake$,” and when she dreams of being a rapper – despite the fact that she is an overweight white woman – she calls herself “Killa P.”

Patti works at a bar as derelict as its surroundings, and she shares an equally derelict house with Barb (Bridget Everett), her alcoholic mother – who once had her own dreams of being a singer, but now only mocks her daughter’s ambitions – and her sick grandmother (Cathy Moriarty, remembered mainly for her fine performance in Martin Scorsese’s 1980 “Raging Bull”). Jasper does not develop Moriarty’s character in a convincing way – he follows the cliché of making the grandmother more progressive than her dysfunctional daughter, the mother. Despite this, Moriarty’s performance is one of the movie’s main virtues.

Patti tries to pursue her rapper dreams together with her only friend, Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), but they get nowhere until Patti meets Bob (Mamoudou Athie), AKA Basterd the Antichrist (his name brings to mind the deliberately misspelled titles of Quentin Tarantino’s movies), a black punk rocker. Though he tends to say very little, he encourages Patti and joins her and Jheri’s band (as does, at one point, the sick grandmother; it’s supposed to be funny, but it’s not).

I have no understanding or appreciation of rap music, so I can’t judge whether the songs Patti writes and performs are any good (they were actually written by Jasper). I have a feeling, though, that they are not particularly witty or exciting, despite their provocative essence (the songs Tamer Nafar performed in Udi Aloni’s “Junction 48” seemed to me much better); people who know more about rap music may disagree.

In any case, Jheri manages to get the band gigs at various unimpressive clubs and bars. Patti, who knows as little as her bandmates about how the music industry works, makes mistakes and has crises that almost cause her to give up her dream. But because what Jasper wants most of all is for us to leave the theater smiling, it doesn’t end there, even if the fulfillment of Patti’s fantasies remains within the realistic bounds of the movie.

“Patti Cake$” is not an insignificant film. It has a certain charm, the characters are well crafted, and the setting is ably captured. Macdonald has a winning presence, though I don’t think she “lights up the screen,” as many other reviewers have claimed. It’s a shame, therefore, that Jasper did not go further and instead contained himself within well-calculated boundaries. The main limitation of the film is that it does not abandon its basic realism for a deeper exploration of the fantastic elements in Patti’s ambition to become a star and thus to find a way out of the reality that traps her. As a result, we cannot really identify with her, and as the story develops and becomes more and more predictable (especially at the end), I found myself disconnecting from it. The familiar formula the movie follows makes it easy to respond to, but it also creates a shallow viewing experience, giving “Patti Cake$” only a tenuous hold on our hearts.