Lead performance saves hip-hop tale

We've seen movies like the follow-your-dreams hip-hop tale of “Patti Cake$,” a fact that is patently obvious when you watch it.

It's “Hustle & Flow” and “8 Mile,” with a little more humor and less edge. (Hell, it's occasionally a little twee and closer to the Britney Spears project “Crossroads.”) And it's sometimes so obvious where it's going that you wish it would just get there already.

There are also moments where it strays into originality, and even those don't really work. In fact, the whole movie wouldn't really work absent a game-saving performance from its lead.

Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) is an aspiring rapper in her young 20s living in New Jersey. She dreams — literally, in an opening sequence — of following in the path of a fictional rap god she idolizes.

She lives at home with her mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), herself revealed to have had musical aspirations in her youth that now only come out in dive bar karaoke, and her wheelchair-bound Nana (Cathy Moriarty).

Her daily struggles include poverty, marginalization for her weight, and her dysfunctional family. But Patricia aka Killer P, aka, eventually, Patti Cake$, is always writing bars about the life she aspires to.

Watching a local show at a VFW, Patti and her hip-hop partner-in-crime, a pharmacy worker named Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), find an unlikely musical partner in Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), an anarchist who makes guitar-tinged noise in the shack in the woods he's squatting in.

These two flavors (plus an appearance by Nana) come together to form a group named PBNJ, a name that's awfully on-the-nose for this idea, no? That's often the problem with writer-director Geremy Jasper's script. A music-video director making his feature debut, he sometimes seems to think his flavors work better than they do.

As he blends in dream sequences that obviously stem from his video past, the surreal-ness is sometimes disconnected, as are parts of the story that strain credibility to the point of unintentional laughs.

In fact, this would probably be a bad movie were it not for the all-in performance of newcomer Macdonald, who both captures the inner struggle and spits bars more efficiently than expected.

Moments of her family life, aided by another strong performance from Everett, may work better than the rap-dream plot, although the predictable finale can't help but make you swell a bit.