Sundance smash ‘Patti Cake$’ busts a rhyme at SXSW

“Patti Cake$.” Contributed by Jeong Park

23-year-old Patricia (newcomer Danielle Macdonald) lives in New Jersey with her mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), and ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty). Her friends call her Patti. She calls herself Killa P. Local hoodlums cruelly call her Dumbo.

She drives around town in an aging Cadillac that has a personalized PATTIWGN plate and toils away tending bar at a local tavern while putting away as much money as possible to help pay down her grandmother’s medical debts. Rap music is always flowing through her headphones and car speakers, and her bedroom floor is covered in notebooks where she’s logged countless rhymes, daydreaming about being a superstar.

There’s a great moment early on in the film where Patti is sitting on the hood of her car, reaching out to the skyscrapers that are in the distance, across the water in Manhattan. They look close enough to touch, but the big city might as well be a million miles away.

Her best friend and fellow outcast, Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay), works in a local pharmacy. He’d like nothing more than for them to team up and make music together. After putting down money to buy some beats from a local producer and make a demo recording, a few puffs of potent pot send Patti running from the booth and cause a lost opportunity.

Demos finally are created with the help of Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a metalhead with creepy contacts in his eyes who somewhat begrudgingly helps them turn into a very bizarre trio who record a handful of songs under the name PBNJ. Having tangible tunes that could help them escape their everyday lives is the first of many hurdles to climb before success is possible.

Director Geremy Jasper, himself a former indie musician, has written a story that genuinely expresses love for hip-hop and pays homage to “8 Mile” and “Hustle and Flow” in the process. Macdonald’s performance is a revelation, but the casting of foul-mouthed cabaret star Everett in the role of Patti’s mother (who herself has seen failed dreams of musical stardom) is also key to the film’s success.

Knowing very little about the movie going into it, it made sense to me that Macdonald was discovered for her hip-hop talents and the movie was created as a vehicle for her. At the post-film Q&A, I was stunned to learn that she was from Australia and had never rapped in her life before shooting the movie. Jasper found her while the movie was being developed at the Sundance labs and he believed that she could pull the character off.

His belief in her paid off in spades. Or at least to the tune of $10.5 million, which is what Fox Searchlight paid to buy the movie after its Sundance premiere in January.

You can catch the magic of “Patti Cake$” again at 4:15 p.m. on Wednesday at the Stateside. The film is expected to be released later this year.


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