8 Mile

You approach “8 Mile” apprehensively. This must be a stunt, you think. Here’s Eminem, the most popular rap star of the day, starring in a film about a poor kid who wants to become a rap star. This could be self-serving, embarrassing and hackish. This could be Mariah Carey’s “Glitter.”

But we are rescued from mediocrity by a strong script by Scott Silver (“The Mod Squad,” but forgive him), strong direction by Curtis Hanson (“Wonder Boys,” “L.A. Confidental”), and yes, strong acting by the famous Mr. Em.

Eminem (real name Marshall Mathers) plays Bunny Rabbit (real name Jimmy Smith, Jr.) a pensive, troubled kid who lives in a trailer in Detroit with his trashy mother Stephanie (Kim Basinger). His pal Future (Mekhi Phifer) runs occasional rapping competitions at the local hip-hop club, and Rabbit displays a talent for it.

Except that when the film opens, Rabbit has vomit-oriented pre-performance jitters and subsequently freezes up completely onstage. He is the only white rapper in a sea of established black artists, and he is keenly aware of the racial and cultural gap between him and his competitors. Ultimately, his only hope of success comes in embracing the differences, acknowledging his own flaws and — if you’ll excuse the time-worn movie cliche — believing in himself.

It is interesting that even by that description, the movie sounds self-serving, like it’s Eminem’s attempt to justify his existence in a market that has traditionally shunned white performers. But in fact, “8 Mile” is by turns funny and gritty, and always sincere. It has a good story to tell and it found as its star someone who happens to be a rapper in real life, that’s all.

There must be a girl, and she is Alex, a rough gal played by Brittany Murphy. When all is said and done, what purpose she serves is not entirely clear, but she is played with spunk and charisma.

I have long maintained that no film has ever been improved by the presence of a rapper. Some are not hindered, maybe, but they are never helped. I will have to modify that belief, because “8 Mile” is boosted tremendously by the talents of Eminem. He gives Rabbit a sense of dolefulness and uncertainty, like this kid is completely lost in his own world. I suspect even people who despise Eminem’s music or ideals will find his character likable. If he is playing himself, it’s a years-ago version, before he was famous, before he was hated by millions. This is the young, earnest urchin who just wants to make something of himself.

There is a quietude to the film, even though it is punctuated by a lot of music and even more yelling. Its mood is soft and even humble. It’s level-headed, not given to histrionics or cheap tricks. And it all culminates in a rap-off in the tradition of the great sports showdowns — I kept thinking of “The Karate Kid” — that could convert a few of hip-hop’s detractors.

B+ (1 hr., 47 min.; R, pervasive harsh profanity, some strong sexuality, brief partial nudity, some fistfight violence.)