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Review

Danielle Macdonald's star-is-born performance elevates the hip-hop fairy tale 'Patti Cakes'

Patricia Dombrowski, a twentysomething New Jersey bartender and aspiring rap star played by the terrific Australian actress Danielle Macdonald, goes by many aliases. To her best friend and biggest fan, Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), she’s mostly “Killa P” and sometimes “Patti Cakes,” which also serves as the title of this exuberant new musical comedy, a hearty feel-good stew of hip-hop and tough love served up by the writer-director Geremy Jasper.

Not all Patti’s nicknames are quite so flattering. Nearly everyone in her unidentified neighborhood calls her “Dumbo.” One charming customer (McCaul Lombardi) dismisses her as “White Precious,” an insult that tells us as much about the movie as it does its heroine.

Like the much-abused title character in the 2009 drama “Precious,” Patti is an immediately sympathetic heroine, a bright, talented young woman consigned by her weight and her poverty to society’s loser fringe. And like “Precious” itself, Jasper’s debut feature premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where stories about young individuals overcoming family neglect and blue-collar malaise are hardly a rare commodity.

And so “Patti Cakes” is both eager to stand out from the pack and honest enough to acknowledge its place within a long tradition of indie uplift. The movie is a canny mixture of flash and grit, an unabashedly contrived Cinderella story in Dirty Jersey drag. And in Macdonald’s winning performance, it gets the hoop-earringed, heavy-set, frizzy-blond princess-to-be it deserves.

Patti is friendly and honest by nature; she shows up to work with an eager-to-please smile and nary a hint of attitude. But when she’s off the clock and starts to rap, all her bottled-up grievances, insecurities and expletives come pouring out, brilliantly. Whether she’s improvising some lines with Jheri in a parking lot (“I’m in my own trap as I flip the world the birdie / My verse is full of curses cuz I’m stuck in Dirty Jersey”) or matching wits with a local bully in an outdoor rap battle (nothing printable here, sorry), Patti is a consummate wordsmith, a master at synthesizing tough-talking slang and personal insights into a virtuoso stream.

Not impressed with Patti’s so-called “music” is her alcoholic mother, Barb (wonderfully played by the New York cabaret legend Bridget Everett), who treats her daughter with a complex weave of tenderness and bitterness, the latter likely stemming from her own dashed musical dreams. On most nights, Barb turns up at the bar where Patti works, downs a few shots and winds up with her head over a toilet, but not before crooning a cover of Heart’s “These Dreams,” a sad, stirring reminder of the singing career she gave up years ago. (Her signature tune, “Tuff Love (Barb Wire),” is one of 19 songs that Jasper wrote for the soundtrack.)

But Patti’s talent finds a way. She and Jheri befriend a lonely punk rocker with the memorable moniker of Basterd the Anti-Christ (Mamoudou Athie), whose uncompromising, rage-fueled performances conceal a tamer, gentler side — a predictable outcome that nevertheless gets the full benefit of Athie’s soft-spoken charisma. Basterd agrees to lay down a few beats for their raps, and even Patti’s sardonic, wheelchair-bound Nana (Cathy Moriarty of “Raging Bull” fame) gets in on the action, her emphysemic line delivery becoming a pretty killer hook.

The band calls itself PBNJ, an acronym of everyone’s first names that also happens to sum up the appeal of “Patti Cakes”: It’s sweet and messy and a little square around the edges, but it’s also awfully hard to resist. There isn’t a single star-is-born, let’s-put-on-a-show cliché the movie leaves untouched, but it more than makes up in energy and passion whatever it lacks in originality (a dubious virtue to begin with). You always feel those clichés are being lovingly embraced rather than exploited.

Not unlike the old-school CDs that Patti starts handing out, the movie serves as a significant calling card for its maker. Jasper, himself a musician who grew up in New Jersey, also worked with composer Jeremy Binnick on the score and penned the impromptu raps that Patti spits out.

“Patti Cakes” is a disarming blend of squalid realism and button-pushing manipulation, a combination that might have seemed inauthentic or mechanical in lesser hands. The cramped living spaces, dive bars and gas stations captured in cinematographer Federico Cesca’s crisp, vibrant images give way to surreal dream sequences shot in lurid absinthe green. The fairy-tale motifs are knowingly placed, from Barb’s wicked-but-redeemable mother figure to Basterd’s shack in the woods (amusingly referred to as “the Gates of Hell”), where PBNJ works its magic.

The movie grasps that nearly all artistic expression entails an element of transformation, of make-believe, that doesn’t necessarily cancel out authenticity. It’s a crucial point, given the particular story being told here. In centering on a fictional white rapper, “Patti Cakes” is certain to generate questions and accusations of cultural appropriation in a movie industry that — the occasional “Straight Outta Compton” aside — doesn’t often give black artists their proper due. The fact that Macdonald had never rapped before in her life before taking on the role may well be wielded as a criticism, rather than hailed as evidence of the actress’ versatility.

There is perhaps some preemptive calculation in the decision to give our heroine two non-white musician friends, or to cast the pioneering hip-hop star MC Lyte as a DJ with whom Patti crosses paths. But the story is also self-aware enough to confront the issue in one key scene, in which Patti gets dismissed by a black rap star (Sahr Ngaujah) as a “culture vulture.”

Jasper keeps his movie honest. Patti is hardly the first white individual, in truth or fiction, to identify with hip-hop’s outsider ethos, but “Patti Cakes” never makes undue claims for its heroine, or tries to pump her up into someone she isn’t. When she steps up to the mic and lets loose with her remarkable gift, the voice we hear is hers and hers alone.

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‘Patti Cakes’

Rating: R, for language throughout, crude sexual references, some drug use and a brief nude image

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles

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justin.chang@latimes.com

@JustinCChang

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