Imagine if you will a movie that's a cross between 8 Mile and Paterson, but starring Rebel Wilson's Fat Amy character from Pitch Perfect, and you'd have a pretty clear picture of what's in store with Patti Cake$, one of the biggest hits out of this year's Sundance Film Festival. (It's hitting several other fests before its wide release this summer.)
While the framework of the story – working class person tries to make it as successful musician/athlete/gambler/what-have-you – isn't the least bit original, the character of Patti is. Played with lightning-quick wit and serious flow by relative newcomer Danielle Macdonald, Patti (aka Killa P) is thick-skinned to mask the pain inflicted on her by others and her situation. Rarely has a film this crowd-pleasing depicted its characters so close to the edge of full-on poverty.
She and her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) spend what little time they're not at their dead-end jobs crafting rhymes and talking about their dreams of getting out of their New Jersey hell-hole. But they can't take the leap until they find the right producer, which takes the unlikely form of a drifter who prefers the ominous moniker Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie). He wears all black and lives in a cabin in the woods, but all that darkness is just a cover for his big heart and big talent.
A recurring theme of Patti Cake$ is the crushing reality that a combination of ambition and talent isn't always enough to make a living off your passion. Patti's mom Barb (played with a wounded harshness by comedian Bridget Everett) also had dreams of making it as a musician before she got pregnant. She now spends her nights crooning in karaoke bars that either end with her going home with a random guy or puking her guts out in the bathroom.
Patti Cake$ has ample opportunity to go off the rails with tonal inconsistency, so it's a minor miracle that it finds just the right balance in every scene. Where it falters just a bit is in its length. It could have easily lost a good 20 minutes, and taken with it some clichés (including the overdone "freaking out in a parked car and hitting the steering wheel in frustration" bit).
Still, this is one of the most entertaining movies you'll see all year, with just the right amount of emotional heft to make it memorable. And keep your eye on Danielle Macdonald. She's going to be a massive star, no matter what happens to Patti.