Small-town New Jersey can be a petri dish for some pretty big dreams. That’s certainly true for Patti (Australian actor Danielle Macdonald), the gutsy heroine of writer-director Geremy Jasper’s affable debut, Patti Cake$. Patti’s a rapper–her stage name, at least if she can ever reach an actual stage, is Killa P–and she longs to escape her drab life in an even more drab town, a place that seems designed to kill dreams. From where she lives, she can see the skyscrapers of Manhattan, looking as small as toys in the distance. But for a city within view, this one couldn’t be further out of reach.
Patti is no conventional beauty: her hair hangs in limp blond ripples, and her shape is less than svelte. Her last name is Dombrowski, and since childhood she’s had to shoulder the nickname Dumbo. But Patti’s belief in herself is as lush and enveloping as a Fendi fur. She finds solace, and equally fiery ambition, in the company of her lone friend, Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). When she meets a strange, elegant guitarist and beatmaster, a tall black kid with one blue eye who calls himself Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), she wonders if he might be the key that will open the door to her dream.
Jasper tells Patti’s story by blending kitchen-sink drabness with fairy-tale idealism. He’s better at the idealism; for the realness, he favors wobbly closeups that often render his characters’ faces unintentionally grotesque, and he works too hard at signaling the dinginess of Patti’s surroundings. (Dirty dishes piled up in the kitchen have long been the international symbol for giving up on life.) But Patti Cake$ motors along steadily on Macdonald’s unsentimental charisma. Her Patti radiates a slow-burning glow–she’s a firefly ready to become a flash of lightning–and there’s never a minute when you don’t want good things to happen for her. Divaliciousness is a state of mind, but it’s always better with an audience.
This appears in the August 28, 2017 issue of TIME.