“Patti Cake$” is the latest proof that it’s not the story you tell but the way that you tell it. Geremy Jasper’s feature debut is an underdog saga that sticks so closely to the classic “Rocky” template — small-time schmoe with big heart goes for his/her dream despite all odds — that the screenplay might be actionable if the movie itself weren’t so adorable.
Above all, “Patti Cake$” has in its corner a performance of immense, tough-nosed charm by Danielle Macdonald as a wannabe rapper with three strikes against her: She’s white, she’s a woman, and she’s defiantly plus-size. Born Patricia Dumbrowski, she’s known and mocked in her New Jersey neighborhood as “Dumbo.” Only we and a select few glimpse the necklace she wears with her secret real name: Killer P.
Those few do not include the hunky local pizza chef and local rap god (McCaul Lombardi) who doesn’t think women in general and Patti in particular can ever master the art. It doesn’t even include the heroine’s mother, Barb (the magnificently tawdry Bridget Everett), who had her shot at a record career back in the Pat Benatar days but who mostly embarrasses herself at the dive where her daughter tends bar.
The catch is that Patti has a real gift for spitting out her discontents in bawdy, truthy cadences of flow — she’s good, but no one’s willing to see it other than her best friend Hareesh (Siddarth Dhananjay), who lets her belt her rhymes over a drugstore P.A. system, and Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie), an African-American punk-rock weirdo who lives and records in an abandoned house near a train underpass.
The lead actress may be from Australia, but “Patti Cake$” the movie is deep, deep New Jersey, dancing along the fringes of Sopranos-land caricature while granting full humanity to almost all its characters. Just when you think the movie couldn’t get any grittier, it literally wheels on the heroine’s ailing Nana, played by Cathy Moriarty, the one-time bruised apple of Robert De Niro’s eye in “Raging Bull.” Moriarty’s unrecognizable at first — until you hear that magnificent gravel pit of a voice.
Underneath the foul language and working-class realism is the old fairy tale about putting on your own show and flying your flag with pride. Jasper and his star make it work anew in the honesty with which the movie portrays Patti’s financial struggles — she works catering gigs on top of tending bar — and the refusal of too much of the world to regard her as anything more than a freak.
To be seen, she has to be listened to, and even that comes with expectations, as proved in an unexpected audition for her hero, a lofty, ridiculous rap superstar (Sahr Ngaujah). By contrast, the veteran rapper MC Lyte plays a radio host — with the delightful moniker of DJ French Tips — who knows a woman has to rap twice as hard to be heard over all that boy’s noise.
As Patti, Hareesh, and Antichrist form a trio of rapper, singer, and producer — and name it with comic assurance PBNJ — “Patti Cake$” charts a path of rise and fall, breakthrough and disappointment, montage and romance that would be woefully predictable if we weren’t having so much fun tagging along. What’s fresh is the central figure, her talent and presence, and an exuberance that all that concrete Tri-State armor can’t hide.
You’ve heard of outsider art? “Patti Cake$” is outsider entertainment.
Written and directed by Geremy Jasper. Starring Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, Siddarth Dhananjay, Mamadou Athie, Cathy Moriarty. At Kendall Square. 108 minutes. R (language throughout, crude sexual references, some drug use, and a brief nude image).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.