The irresistibly charming "Patti Cake$" follows the eponymous character -- a white, plus-sized young woman from New Jersey -- as she fights to make her dreams of hip-hop stardom come true. Like many underdog stories, the plot sticks to a tried and true formula, but it forges through any rough patches on the strength of a spectacular performance from Australian actress Danielle Macdonald.
Macdonald stars as Patti Dombrowski, aka "Killa P" to her few fans and "Dumbo" by pretty much everyone else. Alongside her pharmacist best friend, Jhen (Siddharth Dhananjay), Patti passes the time with freestyle rap battles between working menial jobs to help pay off her family's rapidly-mounting bills.
The pair eventually join forces with another outcast, a moody anarchist metal musician known as Basterd (Mamoudou Athie) -- and the crew even recruits Patti's supportive, no-nonsense gran (Cathy Moriarty) to contribute some vocals -- as they cobble together a demo CD they hope might lead to some actual paying gigs, and set out to take the world by storm.
Of course, Patti faces setbacks and suffers nonbelievers who try to hold her back. Chief among these naysayers is her alcoholic mother, Barb (played by a wonderful Bridget Everett), and their fraught relationship forms the film's chief conflict. Barb loves her daughter, but also holds onto a fair amount of resentment over the dissolution of her own dreams of a music career -- dreams she gave up when she became pregnant with Patti. Now she lives them out by drunkenly belting karaoke after she's plied her daughter for free drinks at the tavern where Patti tends bar.
In keeping with the artform "Patti Cake$" pays affectionate tribute to, writer-director Geremy Jasper (who also produced much of the film's excellent original soundtrack) samples freely from what's come before. You'll recognize some "8 Mile," with shades of "Hairspray" and a smidge of "Rocky" in there as well. But aside from a love story subplot that doesn't quite come together, the results are undeniably crowd-pleasing.
Working with director of photography Federico Cesca, Jasper brings a nice visual style to the film, especially in rendering Patti's frequent daydreams, in which she imagines herself impressing her idol, a local hip-hop producer known as O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah).
But what holds it all together is Danielle Macdonald's career-making performance. Balancing Patti's vulnerability with a brash confidence that comes out when she's spitting rhymes, she's a force of nature on screen. And one that's impossible not to root for.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's "The Trip to Spain."