Filly Brown: Sundance Film Review

Filly Brown

U.S. Dramatic Competition

Gina Rodriguez’s magnetic star turn keeps this often overwrought film engaging, even when the script lets her down.

A dynamic breakout performance from Gina Rodriguez helps this rap-infused drama about a young Los Angeles Latina overcome its patchy storytelling.

PARK CITY – As both an actor and a rapper, Gina Rodriguez gives an empowered performance in Filly Brown, playing a young Los Angeles woman angling for hip-hop stardom as a means to help spring her mother from prison. But the heavy-handed, untidy story sense of co-directors Youssef Delara and Michael D. Olmos means not everything that surrounds the central figure has the same grit and authenticity.

Borrowing stereotypical situations from urban African-American dramas and reworking them with Latino characters is not the same as bringing something fresh to the screen. But the intensity of Rodriguez’s work, the muscular energy and slick style of the film and the pumping soundtrack should give it some commercial traction.

Raised by her construction foreman father Jose (Lou Diamond Phillips) ever since her junkie mother Maria (Jenni Rivera) was incarcerated on drug charges, Majo (Rodriquez) has had to grow up fast. That includes keeping her pretty 17-year-old sister Lupe (Chrissie Fit) in line. Jose wants the girls to stay away from their mother’s toxic influence, but Majo visits her in secret.

Informed by her mother of a possible break in her case, Majo seeks help from Maria’s lawyer (Edward James Olmos). But Maria cares less about legal assistance than about raising $3,000 to pay a shady-sounding contact who “gets things done.” Why Majo never questions this ambiguous strategy -- even as she’s forking over the hard-won dough to a patently sleazy operator -- is one of many ways in which Delara’s screenplay undercuts the character’s intelligence.

An amateur rapper, Majo gets an open-mic spot on local hip-hop radio. Adopting the name Filly Brown, she channels fierce conviction into kick-ass verses her mother claims to have written before things turned sour for her. She also sucker-punches cocky guest MC Wyatt (Joseph Julian Sora). The performance and her feisty attitude earn her the professional and romantic attention of resident spinner DJ Santa (Braxton Millz) and the managerial interest of self-inflated music promoter Rayborn Ortiz (Chingo Bling).

Again during her exploratory inroads into the music business, Delara’s script denies Majo the smarts she deserves, making her reckless and naive. Abandoning the militant Latino rap she and Santa have been experimenting with, she allows Rayborn to sex up her look and add a generic hoochie chorus. That puts her on the radar of producer Big Cee (Noel Gugliemi), whose sneering unscrupulousness borders on caricature. It also puts her in the same circle as Wyatt, who takes an instant liking to Lupe.

It’s problematic when an audience knows way before the supposedly savvy main character that she’s being taken advantage of by her mother as well as compromised as an artist. But despite the inconsistencies of plot and character, and the unevenness of much of the acting, Rodriguez brings such fire to the part that we keep rooting for Majo even as she makes stupid decisions that bring dire consequences.

Laconic but warm, Phillips is saddled with a half-baked attempt to add narrative texture when the patronizing realtor employing him suggests he fire his heavily tattooed buddies and dress to impress her potential buyers. But while this is a useless digression, Jose’s refusal to erase his identity ultimately spurs him to be more open with his daughters about the past. That strengthening of the family unit gives the film some welcome emotional kick in the concluding stretch.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Production companies: Cima Productions, Olmos Productions, Silent Giant Entertainnment

Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Jenni Rivera, Lou Diamond Phillips, Edward James Olmos, Emilio Rivera, Joseph Julian Sora, Braxton Millz, Chingo Bling, Jorge Diaz, Chrissie Fit, Noel Gugliemi

Directors: Youssef Delara, Michael D. Olmos

Screenwriter: Youssef Delara

Producers: Victor Teran, Amir Delara, Mico Olmos, Edward “E-dub” Rios, Khool-Aid Rios

Executive producers: Edward James Olmos, Kevin Smith, Homa Sorror

Director of photography: Ben Kufrin

Production designer: Krystyna Loboda

Music: Reza Safinia

Costume designer: Jill Machlis

Editors: Youseff Delara, Eric R. Brodeur

No rating, 100 minutes.