‘Patti Cake$’ is an un­der­dog story with a hip-hop beat.

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Phillips Chicago Tri­bune Michael Phillips is a Tri­bune critic. mjphillips@chicagotri­bune.com Twit­ter @phillip­stri­bune

Set in the land of chicken Parm, Si­na­tra and rocky roads to star­dom, “Patti Cake$” is a crowd­pleaser in good and less­good ways, de­vel­oped at the Sun­dance screen­writ­ing lab and premier­ing at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val in Jan­uary to a warm re­cep­tion and a $9.5 mil­lion dis­tri­bu­tion deal from Fox Search­light.

The film ticks a lot of boxes. Un­der­dog tri­umph. Show­biz tri­umph. Work­ing-class hero­ics. Fla­grant, of­ten ef­fec­tive film­mak­ing tech­nique, from a first­time fea­ture writer-di­rec­tor, Geremy Jasper, trained in mu­sic videos (he codi­rected among oth­ers Florence + the Ma­chine’s “Dog Days Are Over”). Jasper’s wily and re­lent­less in the ways of which but­tons to push, which strings to pull.

It’s won­der­fully well­cast. Aus­tralian trans­plant Danielle Macdon­ald, who never strains for ef­fect, plays Pa­tri­cia Dom­browski, 23 and tend­ing bar at a Bay­onne, N.J., dive while tend­ing to her ail­ing grand­mother (Cathy Mo­ri­arty). Her nana lives with her and her boozy, abra­sive, thwarted mother, Barb (cabaret per­former Brid­get Everett), a con­flicted wo­man who re­sents her daugh­ter’s tal­ent and gen­eral lack of guile.

It’s a tough life, but the young wo­man who’s been called “Dumbo” as long as she can re­mem­ber bar­rels through it, keep­ing her eye on the prize: a ca­reer as a rap­per. She’s worked up an act with her best friend Ha­reesh (Sid­dharth Dhanan­jay); the duo be­comes a trio, PBNJ, with the ad­di­tion of Bas­terd the An­tichrist, a cryptic, su­per­shy phe­nom of gen­tle de­meanor (played by Mamoudou Athie).

“My verses fulla curses/ cause I’m stuck in dirty Jersey,” Patti spits at one point. Jasper sets up a wish-ful­fill­ment fan­tasy grounded in re­al­ism. Patti reveres a hip-hop mogul and rap idol known as O-Z (Sahr Ngau­jah), but he’s a false idol, made to be smashed. Our hero­ine, whose fan­tasies of stage glory pep­per the ac­tion like frag­ments of mu­sic videos, en­dures set­backs and hu­mil­i­a­tion but finds love and, on­stage at a bat­tle of the as­pir­ing rap stars, when her mother shows up at the last sec­ond … well, spoiler alert and all that.

You get it. And “Patti Cake$” gets it. Com­par­isons have been made to “8 Mile” and “Hus­tle & Flow,” but the film works also with a strong, shame­lessly ma­nip­u­la­tive “Strictly Ball­room” streak of comic whimsy. I liked a lot of “Patti Cake$,” but watch­ing it, first at Sun­dance and then again the other day, I wanted the movie to back off a little, give its per­form­ers more breath­ing room. I say this re­al­iz­ing a lot of peo­ple are re­watch­ing “Strictly Ball­room” for the 40th time this very minute.

My fa­vorite mo­ments blend skill­ful tech­nique and gen­uine af­fec­tion, as when Ha­reesh, be­hind his phar­macy counter, uses the in­ter­com sys­tem to in­tro­duce Patti com­ing down the aisle like the next big thing. Such ca­sual sat­is­fac­tions give “Patti Cake$” a sense of place. Macdon­ald breathes life into the ma­te­rial, the truth and the fic­tions both.


Sid­dharth Dhanan­jay and Danielle Macdon­ald star in “Patti Cake$.”

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