Patti, the extraordinary protagonist of Geremy Jasper’s debut feature “Patti Cake$,” spends every night slumbering to the neon dreams of hip-hop superstardom. She wakes up the next morning with new raps in her head, if as channeled from the same cosmic wellspring that allowed Jimi Hendrix to play the guitar or Mozart the piano.
The words—vulgar and elegant, witty and scalding—spill forth with hurtling energy, and during the film’s roller-coaster narrative, they’ll function as defensive weapons and therapeutic balms, leading to self-destruction and unification alike. The transformative power of street poetry is manifest throughout “Patti Cake$” even after the movie loses its way, and the film is a persuasive salvo against the small-minded among us who still insist that rap isn’t “real music.”
As played with miraculous authenticity by Australian actress Danielle Macdonald, Patti has every reason to lose herself in meter and rhyme. She lives in a poverty-scraping suburb in bridge-and-tunnel New Jersey, toiling part-time as a bartender at a skeevy dive, where her unsupportive mother (Bridget Everett), a onetime rock singer who almost made it in the ‘80s, relives her youth with vainglorious karaoke sets. Her grandmother (Cathy Moriarty, a fount of deadpan wisdom) lives with them too, and she’s slowly dying, accumulating medical bills the family will never be able to pay.
Compounding her daily indignities, Patti is also overweight, and even at 23 remains the victim of schoolyard taunts of “Dumbo!” from mean-spirited locals, along with passive-aggressive insults from otherwise well-meaning adults. One of the things “Patti Cake$” conveys most vividly is the sense of living as a plus-sized person in a nation where fat-shaming is perfectly acceptable public discourse. As a white girl performing in a genre dominated by black males, she has to mount barriers of race and gender as well, and writer-director Jasper is keenly aware of the hurdles. “Patti Cake$” is a Horatio Alger story for a culturally divided America.
Patti escapes her dead-end life through the music she makes with Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), her best friend, but it isn’t until she meets Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), an anarchist African-American composer with a penchant for dyspeptic anti-music screeds, that an unlikely trio is formed. The songs they construct together are sensational, and watching them evolve from guitar-driven spasms to pulsating club anthems is one the movie’s great pleasures.
Unfortunately, for a film about such blazingly original people, “Patti Cake$” succumbs to the slavish three-act formula of a lesser Hollywood product. Fortunes fall and rise like an inverted bell curve, revealing a transparently schematic story that grows more conventional, and less plausible, with every passing moment, reaching its nadir in the insulting domestication of Athie’s hermetic loner.
The hip-hop scene is a brutal, Darwinian world, so perhaps it’s natural that Patti’s failures feel more convincing than her successes. But I preferred the small victories to the grand ambitions of radio play and record deals. The movie is never better than an early scene in which Patti and an arrogant former classmate engage in a rap duel in a gas-station parking lot.
At first, she seems intimidated by her more experienced combatant, absorbing his rhymed insults about her weight all too personally. But then the gears of inspiration begin to grind in her head, and she fires back with verses of her own, at first slowly, even sensually, before dropping the hammer on his manhood with the confidence of a pro. Lightning in a bottle doesn’t crackle better than that.
Patti Cake$ opens today at Regal Shadowood 16 in Boca Raton Raton, Silverspot in Coconut Creek, Cinepolis Luxury Cinemas in Jupiter, and the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale.