“This shit’s so confusing,” raps North Jersey native Patti (Danielle Macdonald) early in “Patti Cake$,” adding, “Want my life like a movie.” Mission accomplished: The rousing debut of writer-director Geremy Jasper channels his music video experience into a winning musical ride that hits some familiar beats while using them in service of a satisfying tale of big dreams and funky talent.
Aussie star Macdonald has a few movie credits to her name (including “The East” and Amy Berg’s “Every Secret Thing”), but she emerges as a genuine breakout in the transformative role of a hard-edged Jersey kid with an uncanny talent for turning her ambitions into energetic freestyle rap. When she isn’t honing her skills, she’s grappling with her alcoholic mother (the great New York underground theater performer Bridget Everett), herself an expert songstress whose dreams faded long ago, and grimacing her way through a dead-end catering gig.
Aspects of “Patti Cake$” recalls 2016’s “Morris From America,” another bittersweet coming-of-age drama about a young pariah harboring rap star dreams. But Patti — under the moniker of Killa P — actually shows serious potential. Her expert delivery in the recording studio apes the crowdpleasing rhythms of “Hustle & Flow,” and undoubtedly emerges as the best hip-hop movie since that 2005 Audience Award winner of the Sundance Film Festival.
“I’m stuck in dirty Jersey,” Patti raps, but she’s got her eye on the prize, idolizing local rap sensation O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah) from afar while engaging in boisterous street battles and rebuffing epithets from the competition who targets her generous figure. She draws confidence from her lively partner Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), a pharmacist by day who pushes her to keep thinking big. Eventually, the pair bond with the moody black anarchist Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a mysterious noise rocker they discover at a grungy local venue who maintains a ramshackle recording studio in the woods. Patti finds a kindred spirit in their mutual sense of alienation, and it doesn’t take long before she’s convinced him to join their group — dragging her cranky grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) with them — to give her rhymes a powerful distorted backdrop.
When the group finally gets together, Jasper shoots them in slo-mo, with Patti pushing her nana in her wheelchair as they strike a menacing pose. Needless to say, you’ve never seen an eclectic quartet quite like this, and “Patti Cake$” goes from solid character study to stirring creative snapshot as soon as they find their groove.
Even then, of course, Patti still has to find a way to get her work out there. Building to a big moment when she confronts O-Z with her album, Jasper builds the scene with operatic intensity, putting us inside her queasy mindset. While it’s natural to assume Patti will find some modicum of success, “Patti Cake$” keeps uncertainty in play, and it’s never entirely clear if she’ll deliver a mic-dropping moment or wind up humiliating herself.
The story includes a recurring contrast with Patti’s troubled mother, who initially surfaces at a grungy bar to sing karaoke and then puke in the bathroom moments later. An excellent showcase for the under-appreciated Everett, her character provides a strong vessel for exploring the sins of one generation being visited on the next, and how they both learn to cope with their problems through music.
Of course, there’s a familiarity to all this drama, and its tropes sometimes fall dangerously close to the sentimental coming-of-age formula that has become a Sundance cliché. Jasper pushes the material a bit too far with abrupt cutaways to exuberant music video fantasies, and elsewhere relies on mother-daughter cliches so routine they cut into the momentum like a record scratch. But for every indulgence, “Patti Cake$” offers another rousing showdown, each of which make Patti’s journey more exciting to watch. “Just to make myself clear,” she raps, “Get me the fuck out of here.”
One could argue that “Patti Cake$” doesn’t break any new ground, but that would ignore the infectious attitude of its determine young heroine, and how much it stands out from conventional variations. The movie presents an unorthodox protagonist and lets her be sexy, intimidating, and heroic in her resilience against a cruel world. Struggling to get her name out, she encounters a veteran DJ who offers sage advice. “Keep your head up, killa,” she’s told. “It’s a cold world out there.” But the appeal of “Patti Cake$” is just how well Patti manages to heat things up.
“Patti Cake$” premiered in U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.