The production notes for Patti Cake$ describe the movie's heroine as "plain and plus-sized." Plus-sized she may be, but neither Patti Dombrowski, an aspiring rapper in her 20s, nor Danielle Macdonald, the gifted non-rapper who plays her, is plain in any sense unless your definition of beauty begins and ends with Angelina Jolie. The Australian actress, who by the way has expressive green eyes, a fetchingly unruly tangle of blonde curls and a relaxed ease in her own skin, was the best thing about Amy Berg's nerveless 2015 thriller, Every Secret Thing, in which she played an acerbic piece of teenaged work. And she's easily the best thing about Patti Cake$, a sweet, conventional dramedy gussied up in the grit of New Jersey rap.
We meet Patti tending bar, sweeping floors, and fielding an overload of other adult burdens in a working class suburb of New Jersey. Her mother, Barb, played with slatternly brio by cabaret artist and comedian Bridget Everett, is a former rocker who sings like an angel but is drowning in bitterness and booze, and she's too jealous and dismissive of Patti's chosen medium to be of any use. The deck is fully stacked against Patti, or Killa P as she means to call herself when she finally breaks into the mostly male, mostly black, mostly inhospitable rap scene whose incumbents — including a nasty specimen she has a crush on — see nothing wrong in calling her Dumbo.
Team Patti, alas, is cobbled together from a bunch of crudely constructed counter-intuitive types who rarely flesh out into plausible humans. The great Cathy Moriarty surely deserves better than Patti's unconditionally supportive but ailing Nana, who's little more than a visual gag in a slightly skewed wig, bellowing ballsy epithets from a wheelchair. The same goes for Patti's producing partner Jheri, a Southeast-Asian R&B singer and drugstore employee amiably mugged by non-pro actor Siddharth Dhananjay. Not for nothing does Patti, on a disconsolate but mythic wander through thorny woods, stumble on a cabin cluttered with the creative projects of Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a shy and alienated scion of much wealthier suburbia who styles himself an anarchist and, it turns out, makes music too.
Director Geremy Jasper, a music video producer, keeps sidetracking us into fantasy sequences meant to signal Patti's dreams of upward mobility and a more glittering life than the crushingly mundane world she's marooned in by class and bad luck. They're fine, but the director's strongest impulses are solidly realist, in the loving, rough and ready sense of place he shows for the hometown which he, too, dreamed of escaping and which now feeds his imagination.
For all its jittery attitude and outsider milieu, though, the movie is too bent on pleasing crowds to cohere into a point of view. Indeed the most transgressive thing about Patti Cake$ is the whiteness of its heroine in a black world. While the bit parts are manned by local rappers, this is a story more about gender than it is about race, and Jasper ventures only a little way out on a ledge with that. When all seems lost for Patti, help comes from a black female rapper who has known rejection herself. And such is Macdonald's range — all the way from vulnerable to mouthy to indomitable (she's pretty good with Jasper's feminist rap lyrics too) — that she rises above type to make us wish both Patti, and the versatile actor who plays her, the success they both deserve.