Melodramatic and gritty Filly Brown marks the debut of a magnetic screen presence in Gina Rodriguez, as well as the final performance of singer Jenni Rivera, who died in a plane crash in December.
The film (* * ½ out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday nationwide) strives to be inspiring in its chronicle of Majo Tonorio, aka Filly Brown (Rodriguez), an aspiring Los Angeles hip-hop artist. Rodriguez is engaging, smoothly blending a street-wise quality with a vulnerable aura. A nimble rapper, she's more convincing than many of the of the cast members.
Unfortunately, the film is marred by a story, situations and stereotypical characters that strike all-too-familiar chords. Majo's socially conscious rap about Latinos as "economic slaves" is perhaps the only real fresh element.
Majo's mother, Maria (Rivera), is in prison for drug-related crimes, and her father, Jose (Lou Diamond Phillips), a construction worker, is struggling to provide for Majo and her younger sister, Lupe (Chrissie Fit.)
Majo sees a recording contract as a way to help her family, particularly her mother, who she believes was wrongly imprisoned. She secretly visits her mom and is determined to raise several thousand dollars for a legal appeal. Edward James Olmos (whose son Michael is the co-director with Youssef Delara) plays attorney Leandro Chavez.
She gets a spot on a local hip-hop radio station and shortly afterward achieves some local success. Then, just as quickly, Majo begins to lose her down-to-earth identity and authenticity as an artist and turns her back on friends who helped her along the way.
But through it all, Rodriguez imbues her character with a plucky can-do charm that brings to mind a younger, grittier Reese Witherspoon. When she slugs slimeball rapper MC Wyatt (Joseph Julian Soria), who cold-cocked her 17-year-old sister, Rodriguez does it believably. Her Majo is tough and fiercely loyal. But she also has some uncharacteristically naive moments.
On the one hand, she's a street-smart woman who counsels her underage sister to keep away from shady guys. Yet she caves in easily to her mom's desperate requests to pay a man thousands of dollars to "gets things done." Clearly, the guy is a sleazy drug dealer. Majo talks about refusing to give up on her mother, and perhaps she's in denial. But helping her get drugs hardly seems consistent. Why would the screenwriters give such a clearly intelligent character such a huge blind spot?
Rodriguez is a natural rapper with a strong voice, and she displays remarkable ease on camera. Phillips is wisely understated as her noble but flawed father. Olmos brings a lived-in ease to his lawyer role. Majo's musical colleague and possible romantic interest, DJ Santa (Braxton Millz), is another winning presence.
However, most of the supporting performances are one-note. Rivera's role is small, toggling between belligerent and teary.
The script is uneven, marred by a predictable arc and some overheated scenes. But there's an inherent likability and fiery quality in Rodriguez's performance that keeps us invested and rooting for her character.