Patti Cake$ review: hip-hop epic to the tune of Springsteen

There are reasons to frown at the choice of a white protagonist for this movie – even if she puts in a charismatic performance

Film Title: Patti Cake$

Director: Geremy Jasper

Starring: Danielle Macdonald

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 108 min

Thu, Aug 31, 2017, 06:12

   

The spirit of a whiter, rockier music hangs over Geremy Jasper’s gimcrack hip-hop epic. We spend the time in blue-collar New Jersey with the spirited Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald). She and her mom struggle to get by. She gets a job. She loses her job. Grandma gets sick. The refinery keeps grinding.

Even if we didn’t hear Bruce Springsteen’s The Time that Never Was – “Sometime’s I wake up in the morning and it cuts me like a knife” – the controlling spirit of the Boss would be unmistakable. But, sad to relate, Patti Cake$ has less discipline than any of Springsteen’s story songs. The picture asks whether it’s possible to get by with strong characters and top-flight acting alone? Maybe. Just about. At a stretch.

Macdonald, exorcising any hint of her native Australia, grapples the title role into submission. The self-styled Patti Cake$ lives to improvise raps over beats by her Asian-American pal Hareesh (Siddarth Dhananjay). Like any Springsteen protagonist, she is not afraid of hard work. Shifts in a bar and, later, with a catering company help support her ambitions and pay her granny’s medical expenses. Unfortunately her boozy mom (cabaret artist Bridget Everett) is of little help. Still soured by unfulfilled ambitions to become a 1980s hair rock superstar, she spends days in front of the telly and nights wrapped around the punt of a bottle. She only perks up when persuaded to sing Hearts These Dreams on karaoke night. (If you wish to ignore the film’s embrace of sentimental cliché it’s best not to consider the lyrics of that immortal power ballad.)

Excess energy

There are reasons to frown at a hip-hop movie that chooses to put another white protagonist at its heart. Patti eventually brings a strangely drawn African-American musician into the group – Mamoudou Athie’s Basterd lives mysteriously in the woods – but she always remains the centre of attention. Macdonald does, nonetheless, create a character that could believably break out of the ‘hood and achieve off-centre fame. She’s charismatic, articulate and buzzing with batteries of excess energy.

She is, in short, not unlike the heroine of a corny mid-20th century musical. If all goes well, some lucky accident might eventually propel our latter-day Garland towards the limelight and offer estranged relatives an opportunity for reconciliation. You never can tell.