Presenting a tough profile but revealing a soft inner core, “Filly Brown” tells a familiar saga of a no-nonsense Latina rapper and her struggles at home and in the biz. Despite the contributions of no fewer than four writers, including co-directors Youssef Delara and Michael D. Olmos, the resulting film is a trite piece of storytelling, with character development and plot points that feel not so much lived in as borrowed from other movies. Slick surface, a song-filled soundtrack and lots of young faces will draw buyers, but commercial prospects are limited.
A regular performer on an Internet radio show, Majo (Gina Rodriguez) has adopted the rapper name of Filly Brown, and is bent on making a name for herself in the male-dominated hip-hop world. After visiting her mother, Maria (Jenni Rivera), in prison, Majo learns the cop whose testimony put Maria away is under investigation, and persuades her legal-aid attorney, Leandro (Edward James Olmos), to fight to vacate the verdict.
This proves, however, to be the first of many dead ends and outright falsehoods on Maria’s part, but Majo is so determined to get her released that that she considers even compromising her music, which she’s previously sworn to pal and DJ Santa (Braxton Miltz) that she’d never do. The prospect of legal fees compels Majo to go along with big-talking, small-time producer Rayborn (Pete “Chingo Bling” Herrera) and sex up her act, which has been distinctly political, feminist and confrontational in tone.
The fact that Majo and her performing crew, including a somewhat reluctant Santa, enjoy their resulting club gig raises questions about where Majo’s head is at: Is she a calculating operator, or a dedicated artist ready to stick by her principles but momentarily taking advantage of an opportunity? When she subsequently jumps over to a hot label run by the aptly named Big Cee (Noel G.) and leave Santa behind, it appears this question has been answered. Underneath, though, the film wants to suggest that Majo is still the real deal.
Such a confused conception of its protagonist dogs “Filly Brown” consistently, as the troubled script juggles too many plotlines to remain nimble and fresh. Majo’s blind fidelity to Maria — despite plenty of warnings from caring but tough father Jose (Lou Diamond Phillips, in the film’s best performance) — draws her into an ill-judged plot involving cash and drugs. Especially problematic is a subplot involving Majo’s rival, egotistical rapper MC Wyatt (Joseph Julian Soria), which distracts from the main matters at hand.
Fortunately for the film, the rapping is real, though curiously lacking in lyrics in Spanish and/or the Spanish-English hybrid language that makes Latino hip-hop so distinctive. Rodriguez gamely handles the assignment once the songs start and delivers some impassioned beats, though the role presents her with significant obstacles on the likability front. A confessional monologue by Phillips easily reps the pic’s high point, exquisitely Catholic without being religious for a moment.
Ben Kufrin’s widescreen lensing on the Red camera, often emphasizing soft browns and brilliant whites, is ultra-pro, despite cliched L.A. street shots. Krystyna Loboda’s highly versatile production design reps a huge contribution.