For Patricia Dombrowski, a young New Jersey woman whose many aliases include Killa P and White Trish, hip-hop is not just a musical genre or a cultural style. It’s a universal religion, bringing the promise of grace and salvation into an otherwise drab existence. With a head full of bling-spangled reveries and a notebook full of rhymes, Patti (masterfully played by Danielle Macdonald) hones her skills and indulges her dreams with her friend Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay), a pharmacist whose nom de mic is Jheri.
“Patti Cake$,” Geremy Jasper’s big-hearted and astute debut film — he wrote, directed and composed the songs that make Patti and Jheri’s aspirations plausible — could have gone wrong in a dozen ways. The story of a white suburban redhead chasing hip-hop glory may set off alarms about cultural appropriation, but the film mostly disarms them — or, at least, mixes them into the soundtrack.
Patti and her mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), easily could have been figures of mockery. “Why don’t you act your age?” Patti asks Barb, an almost-was wannabe stuck in her own rock ’n’ roll fantasies. “Why don’t you act your race?” is her mom’s barbed retort.
It’s silly of Patti to imagine that she could be the next Nicki Minaj and pathetic that Barb belts out old radio hits at karaoke. A lot of people in the movie make fun of the Dombrowski women, Patti in particular. Since middle school, she’s been known as Dumbo, and when she enters into an impromptu rap battle with a guy who works at the local pizza place, his rhymes are full of fat-shaming and sexual humiliation. She gives back as good as she gets, and the film, rather than join in the ridicule, registers its cruelty.
But we’re not invited to feel sorry for her, either. In structure and attitude, the movie adheres to a template familiar to readers of young adult fiction, blending realism with gentle but unmistakable messages of encouragement. It tells the story of a band of young misfits asserting themselves in a world that refuses to see their value.
Jheri and Patti find a beat wizard (and Patti finds a romantic interest) in the person of a taciturn African-American punk rocker (Mamoudou Athie) who lives in a shack near the cemetery and goes by the name of Basterd. The three of them, now called PBNJ, start cutting tracks and planning their assault on the big time. It’s impossible not to root for them.
The older generation comes in for harsher treatment. Wayward parents are a staple of the genre, and things are no different here. But Everett, a popular cabaret performer and a brilliant actress, endows Barb with dignity even at her worst. Patti’s grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) gives her more support and earns more sympathy, and also serves as a kind of guarantor of her granddaughter’s decency and ultimate safety. There will be tears, embarrassment and disappointment, but we’re not here to be miserable.
And Macdonald is, quite simply, a revelation, capturing the reflexive self-confidence and defensive diffidence of the millennial generation with sneaky sincerity and offhand wit. Although it is expressively shot and crisply edited, the credibility of “Patti Cake$” ultimately rests on her shoulders.
We have to believe that Patti is talented, and also that the odds are not in her favor. “It’s a cold world out there,” she’s told by her favorite DJ (played by MC Lyte), and we need to feel that chill to savor the sweetness of Patti’s creativity.
Jasper finds a new variation on a central hip-hop theme and gives a hip-hop inflection to a durable show-business-movie convention.
As long as there are underdogs and misunderstood kids fighting to be noticed (and be paid), there will be stories like this one, walking the line between cliché and classic with grit, conviction and just enough cynicism to keep things from getting too corny.
★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for profanity.