Patti Dombrowski is 23 years old, living in a working-class northern New Jersey suburb with her mother and grandmother, tending bar at a local watering hole and nursing dreams of stardom. A Bruce Springsteen song plays while we watch Patti’s daily routine, and in many ways she embodies the Boss’s most enduring musical characters: the strivers who continue to yearn for something better, no matter how many times their hopes are dashed by a rigged system, self-deception or simple crummy luck.
But Patti veers from the typical Jersey-girl stereotype in important ways that “Patti Cake$,” Geremy Jasper’s endearing, infectiously inspiring debut feature, both confronts and celebrates. Played by the freckled, frizzy-haired Danielle Macdonald, Patti is a heavyset white girl who longs to be a rapper, spitting motivational rhymes into her bathroom mirror just before attending to her ailing Nana (played by a nearly unrecognizable Cathy Moriarty). Patti longs to leave her life — to get signed by the hip-hop impresario O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah) and live in the closest thing she has to Emerald City, a Manhattan penthouse — but she’s no moaner. She unhappily endures the taunts of her peers (who call her “Dumbo”) and the neediness and criticisms of her mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), but Patti has a loyal best friend and collaborator named Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) who, along with her raspy-voiced Nana, shares her resolute belief in her own talent.
Macdonald, who is from Australia, imbues her character with just the right balance of tenacity and vulnerability. She not only masters the New Jersey accent, but also completely owns Patti’s raps, which hew to the coarse conventions of the form and also burst with its unbridled brio, humor and incisive observation. During a pivotal rap battle in “Patti Cake$,” for which Jasper wrote Patti’s brilliantly cutting rhymes, a boy she has a crush on calls her “the white Precious.” It’s intended as an insult, but the comparison is apt: Like Gabourey Sidibe’s indelible, indomitable young heroine, Patti is a force of nature, an avatar of girl power at its most spontaneous and ungovernable.
The structure of “Patti Cake$” is familiar to anyone who’s watched a movie about a kid from the sticks longing for her first big break. There’s even a sweet love story that takes shape alongside the usual setbacks and star-making metamorphoses. Thanks to Jasper’s sure hand, judicious dashes of magical realism and clear love for his characters and their environment, “Patti Cake$” never feels cliche or mechanical. What’s more, he doesn’t hesitate to confront the issues of appropriation and identity that undergird his idealistic narrative. When one character accuses Patti of being a “culture vulture,” both she and the audience are invited to question whether her passion is a pose or something more authentic. And he has a superb eye for talent. In addition to Macdonald, the filmmaker has made a slew of promising discoveries, including Dhananjay and Mamoudou Athie, who plays an offbeat musician Patti and Jheri meet at an open-mic night.
As confident as Macdonald is with Patti’s raps, the most electrifying moments of “Patti Cake$” take place between her and Everett, a real-life cabaret singer who turns out to be the perfect choice to play the embittered Barb, a onetime blues singer who has taken out her own disappointments on the daughter she insists on treating like a sister. Paying respectful homage to the music of Barb’s era, “Patti Cake$” winds up being a celebration of art, enterprise and self-invention that’s as tough as it is touching. At the risk of mixing metaphors, not to mention musical genres, it rocks.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and ArcLight Bethesda. Contains obscenity, crude sexual references, some drug use and a brief nude image. 109 minutes.