IN THE LAST half decade, “cultural appropriation” has become an accusation commonly levelled at any white rapper who dares to so much as throw a gang sign. In 2013, we saw Lily Allen get it in the neck from the Twitterati for the twerking black and Asian back-up dancers in the video for Hard Out Here. At the end of last year, Honey G— a middleaged white woman — got the same treatment week in, week out on The X Factor: her many critics included Lily Allen, who described her performances as “so wrong on so many levels”.
The professionally outraged will likely find the opening scenes here similarly problematic. We meet the white 23-year-old Patricia (Macdonald), aka Killer P, via a dream sequence in which she is on stage basking in the adulation of a huge crowd hanging on her every rhyme about “the game”. She wakes up, and we see that in reality she lives in a small New Jersey house with her alcoholic mother (Everett), who is a failed hair-metal singer and regards hip hop as not even being music. Patricia works a deadend bar job and is a long way from making her dreams come true. Her partner in crime is an Asian boy (and Drake-style R’N’B singer) named Jheri (Dhananjay) who works in a chemist and is the only one who recognises her lyrical genius and dextrous flow. He eggs her on into a car park rap battle — always an effective, tension-creating movie device — that she wins against a white, male rapper, but which sees her then take a punch in the face from her victim. Haters, it becomes clear, are going to hate.
Enter the film’s central, racial balancereaddressing African-american character: a near-mute, Marilyn Manson-esque, coloured contact lens-wearing, Satanic-noise-rocker named Bob (Athie), who also goes by the name Basterd The Antichrist (in other words, the sort of kid who you might expect to be white). Together with Jheri and — yes, really — Patricia’s grandma (Moriarty), they form a band, complete with the quite inevitable, “We’re really onto something!” scene in which this diverse gang of outsiders spontaneously create a song that is supposed to be undeniably genius, but in truth is just endearingly naff. From here, first-time writer/director Jasper continues with a tone that is kitsch and earnest in equal measure, proceedings climaxing with the also-inevitable talent contest — do talent contests like this exist anywhere other than in climatic movie scenes anymore? — where the band are initially booed and have stuff thrown at them, but are then screamed at like gods before their first verse has even finished.
There are plenty of you-cannot-be-serious moments throughout here, but the performance of Macdonald saves this Sundance festival hit from just being all a bit silly. She is startlingly compelling from the off, the desperation on her face during every knockback making you yearn along with her. She bounces fantastically off all her supporting cast, allowing us to overlook the implausibility of the story and to buy into the central, obvious themes of never giving up on your dreams, that friendship and family are more important than money and stardom, and that being a bit different should be something that is celebrated. When the feelgood payoff finally comes, it feels genuinely fantastic.