In her dreams, Patricia Dombrowski is Patti Cake$, a gold-toothed rap superstar slinging virtuoso rhymes from the heavens.
In reality, Patti is a plain, plus-size, lower-class Jersey girl in a dead-end town. She has a lousy job. Her mother’s a drunk. Nothing in Patti’s life is worth rapping about.
“Patti Cake$” is also the feature film debut from writer, director and composer Geremy Jasper. In the spirit of “Rocky,” “Rudy,” “Cinderella Man” and other underdog movies, “Patti Cake$” depicts its principal character’s struggles against formidable odds and the punches that life keeps throwing her way.
Playing Patti, Australian actress Danielle Macdonald brings the aspirational character all the spunk and vulnerability she needs. Macdonald absolutely is Patti Cake$, rolling through defeats, disappointments, humiliations and occasional victories. It’s a breakout performance in an inspiring story.
Patti and the story Jasper places around her in are based on his New Jersey youth. Scenes shot in New York and New Jersey convincingly put Patti in tough, spirit-sucking surroundings. They include the house she shares with her handful-of-a-mother, Barb, and loving but stuck-in-a-wheelchair grandma, Nan. It’s a cluttered dump.
Down at Lou’s Tavern, where Patti works part time, the same salty old patrons come in every day to drink their hours away. And Lou is not sympathetic to Patti’s money woes. “No raises, no more hours,” he says.
“Patti Cake$,” despite its heavy hip-hop musical orientation, makes resonant use of one of Jersey guy Bruce Springsteen’s anxious blue-collar anthems. “The Time That Never Was” fits Patti’s least-likely-to-succeed situation perfectly.
“I’m 23 and I ain’t done nothing,” Patti tells her best friend and one-man cheering squad, Jheri. Played by Siddharth Dhananjay, Jheri is musically talented, too. But the duo’s quest for rap notoriety bumps against one disaster after another.
Patti’s messed-up mom, Barb, is one of those disasters. Bridget Everett (“Trainwreck,” “Inside Amy Schumer”) co-stars as the parent who needs to grow up. Everett and the lines Jasper gives her character don’t pull punches. A former rock singer known as Barbwire, Barb claims she almost signed a record deal. Rap, Barb tells Patti, ain’t no kinda music.
Barb’s backstory comes in handy, especially when Everett, who’s both a professional cabaret singer and an actress, lets Barb’s power ballad power loose during some especially transformative moments in “Patti Cake$.”
Veteran actress Cathy Moriarty, playing Patti’s grandmother, Nan, adds comic relief and positive counterpoint to Barb’s potentially crippling negativity. Nan even supports Patti’s musical ambitions. Predictable developments for Nan, though, don’t produce the poignancy that Jasper surely was seeking for her.
Patti and Jheri, with no place to go but up, meet the mysterious Basterd at a VFW Hall open mike night. Played by Mamoudou Athie, Basterd and his anarchist death metal music go nowhere with the hip-hop-loving crowd at the hall. But Patti recognizes his talent and relates to his alienation.
“I liked your set, man,” Patti tells Basterd. “You know, I agree with you. This place is full of sheep.”
“Patti Cake$” director Jasper ― a musician prior to becoming a filmmaker ― composed most of the music in “Patti Cake$.” Using that experience, he depicts the formation of a hip-hop group featuring Jheri, Basterd and, the trio’s undeniable star, Patti. Although their almost instantaneously successful collaboration looks and sounds too easy, the director and his film don’t have time to linger on the creative process.
In addition to Jasper’s well-worked script and confident direction, his cast almost always delivers. Patrick Brana is effectively cruel as Slaz, the bully and rap rival who calls Patti “Dumbo,” an insult she’s lived with since junior high. Dhananjay’s Jheri enlivens the screen with raps and almost inextinguishable optimism.
Athie as Basterd never quite reveals the inner light that this idealist, rebellious character clearly was intended to have. Sahr Ngaujah, playing rap mogul O-Z, doesn’t hold back during the devastating scene he shares with Macdonald. And MC Lyte, a real-life hip-hop star, becomes a realistic mentor for Patti as DJ French Tips, a radio personality and DJ for any occasion.
“Patti Cake$,” familiar though its underdog story is, scores many points. While the premise, seen in so many underdog stories for decades, isn’t new, Patti, the Jersey girl who wants to be a hip-hop queen, is. And Macdonald never has a false moment as the movie’s hip-hop heroine.
STARRING: Danielle MacDonald, Bridget Everett, Cathy Moriarty, Siddharth Dhananjay, Mamoudou Athie
DIRECTOR: Geremy Jasper
RUNNING TIME: 1 hour, 48 mins.
MPAA RATING: R (Restricted) Under 17 requires accompanying parents or adult guardian.
WHY IS THIS MOVIE RATED R? For language, crude sexual references, some drug use and a brief nude image.
Excellent (****), Good (***), Fair (**), Poor (*)