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Danielle MacDonald shines as the underdog in 'Patti Cake$

In Geremy Jasper's directorial debut.

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'THESE DREAMS': Patricia Dombrowski, played by Australian actor Danielle MacDonald, struts down a pharmacy aisle as Killa P, an aspiring rapper from a low-rent neighborhood in New Jersey.
  • 'THESE DREAMS': Patricia Dombrowski, played by Australian actor Danielle MacDonald, struts down a pharmacy aisle as Killa P, an aspiring rapper from a low-rent neighborhood in New Jersey.

At 23, Patricia Dombrowski is living at home with her mother and her nana, tending bar in a New Jersey karaoke dive, dodging bill collectors and rapping her ass off — stage name, Killa P. "I've been grinding," she tells her mom, explaining obliquely that she's moonlighting in rap battles and trying to cut a demo CD. She fills spiral notebooks with lyrics, literally dreaming of the day she gets signed by the local mogul, an emerald-grilled emcee named OZ who feels like the common grandfather Sean Combs and Morpheus from "The Matrix" never realized they had.

Her rhymes are a lurid mix of excess and id, hilarious and filthy, the perfect distillation of her crappy life and her wild aspirations. The best part about Patti's existence in the small-budget, high-ceiling "Patti Cake$" is that she's played by Danielle MacDonald, an occasional on some TV shows you've seen ("Glee," "Two Broke Girls," "American Horror Story") and a credible rapper. Her best friend Jheri (first-timer Siddharth Dhanajay) works at a pharmacy counter and croons her choruses. They fumble till they find a reticent, heavily pierced hermit musician (Mamoudou Athie) who lays down beats and guitar and brings a dash of Trent Reznor to their sound. Then, they try to get noticed.

It's the old story, really, that tracks not only with underdog sports films and a hundred others in the movies-about-showbiz subgenre. (If you can't hear the echos of "8 Mile," turn down the T. Swift.) Where director/writer Geremy Jasper wins in his feature debut is in the sheer joy of telling this tale — with a dose of magical realism and an unabashed thirst to be loved. "Patti Cake$" represents a meta story about the movie itself, and Jasper's own life, he's said, being young and stuck in Jersey. In a sense, it's also the full-length record you'll wish Killa P would release.

How much you enjoy "Patti Cake$" will depend in part on how willing you are simply to chill. Early reviews have dinged it for hitting too many of the standard plot points that a rags-to-riches story has in the drawer: the setbacks, the near-misses the usual hope bait-and-switches. It's also going to hinge on how much you love music. Bars and beats are the real star here, the escape from the brutal everyday. Patti carries her ability like a martial art — the neighborhood mooks who razz her as "Dumbo" don't believe she has a rhyme in her body, until an impromptu rap battle in a gas station parking lot ends with her the clear victor and the loser so sore he head-butts her nose open. Her mother (Bridget Everett) dotes on her own glory days as the front lady of an almost-signed big-haired rock group, even as she slinks into Patti's Christmas-light-lit bar to demand Jäger shots — fuel for a drunken cover of Heart's "These Dreams."

Music is the way out, even when it can't even get you out. When Patti and Jheri are parked on a hill, looking out toward the Manhattan skyline, sitting on her aging oil tanker of a car, banging out beats and inventing rhymes, it almost doesn't matter whether they make it to the city. It does, of course — money's real, sick relatives are real, the struggle is real — but they're living like free people for a moment, and that's a real thing, too.

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