MRR Review: Filly Brown

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A promising hip-hop rhymer from Los Angeles finds herself in a gray area when a record producer offers her a compromising shot at stardom.
2.5

MRR Review: "Filly Brown"

-- Rating: R (language, violence, some drug use)
Length: 80 minutes
Release Date: April 19, 2013
Directed by: Youssef Delara and Michael D. Olmos
Genre: Drama/Music

Majo Tonorio (Gina Rodriguez) deals with more problems than the average teenager on a daily basis. Her mother, Maria (Jenni Rivera), is thrown in jail on drug charges, leaving Majo to care for her siblings while her dad, Jose (Lou Diamond Phillips), struggles to earn an income. She escapes her somewhat gritty existence by writing poetry, expressing her political ideas on feminism in verse.

She sets her poetry to hip-hop beats, creating songs that her friend, DJ Santa (Braxton Miltz), features regularly on her online music show. Slowly but surely, Majo begins to build a cult following. She adopts the stage name Filly Brown to separate her music life from her real life. She's offered gigs that would alter her music, but she doesn't want to do compromise her sole source of emotional escape. While visiting her incarcerated mother, Majo learns that the testimony against her mom was revoked, meaning there could be a new trial. Ecstatic about her mother's possible release, Majo becomes determined to collect the legal fees and hire lawyer Leandro (Edward James Olmos) to defend her mother.

Majo makes the difficult decision and changes some of the more confrontational lyrics in her songs. Though DJ Santa disapproves of such compromise, she is willing to go along with it and they begin to enjoy the spoils of their success. Then, small-time producer Rayborn (Pete Herrera) offers Majo a record deal that may or may not be in Majo's best interest. He wants to mellow down her song lyrics and exploit her sexuality, giving her a pop star image. Majo has to decide how much she is willing to compromise to help her mother; moreover, Majo learns her mother may have exaggerated the likelihood of a new trial.

There are plenty of successful female music stars, but some genres are easier for women to break into than others. Hip-hop success proves more difficult for women because it's a genre dominated by men. "Filly Brown" realistically portrays the struggles of a young woman who achieves greatness without selling her soul. By most accounts, a person has to sell themselves or make change in order to make it big. The film doesn't tiptoe around this; instead, the film faces this dilemma head on so that Majo must decide how much of herself she is willing to compromise in order to get ahead. Screenwriter Youssef Delara, who also serves as co-director, developed a well-rounded and relatable character in Majo, keeping the audience wondering what she'll choose to do.

The cast of "Filly Brown" includes big time actors experienced in drama, like Phillips and Olmos. As always, they do an admirable job with their somewhat limited roles. However, Rodriguez steals the show with her portrayal of Majo, the tough girl who is wise beyond her years. Until now, she has been best known for her recurring roles on television shows like "The Bold and the Beautiful" and "Army Wives." That will all likely change though after "Filly Brown" is released. In fact, "The Hollywood Reporter" has already named her as one of the Top 35 Latinos under 35, a sign that she is already getting noticed by major movie industry players. Don't be surprised to see this actress trading her traditional small roles to take on more lead roles like this one.

Vocalist Jenni Rivera turned in a soulful performance in "Filly Brown", which was her first and only English-language role. Tragically, she died in December 2012 in a plane crash over Mexico, before the film was widely released in the U.S. She demonstrated definite acting potential and could have made that rare and difficult transition from singer to actor. Rivera's death makes her portrayal of Majo's mom even more poignant. It is one of the emotional highlights of "Filly Brown," though it doesn't overshadow the heartfelt performance of Rodriguez; Rodriguez proves that she is ready to go beyond indie roles like this one and into the mainstream.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars