The sad reality about films like Filly Brown is that they gain recognition not because of the plot or the characters, but because of tragedy. The film features a minor role played by Latin pop star Jenni Rivera, who, sadly, was one of six to die in a plane crash near Iturbide, Mexico in December of 2012. Filly Brown will remain the one and only film she has ever appeared in. Knowing this, one has to wonder: Will anyone be motivated to see this movie for reasons apart from the casting of Rivera? Will her fanbase care or even notice that it’s really not her character’s story, that the focus is actually Gina Rodriguez, who plays her daughter? Will Rivera’s untimely death blind audiences to the fact that the film is at best merely competent and doesn’t achieve the greatness the filmmakers obviously intended it to achieve?
Who can say? All I know is that I’m required to see more than the fleeting performance of a woman whose life was unfortunately cut short. I must take the entire film into consideration. And on that note, Filly Brown is good-hearted and at times very compelling, but it’s also weighed down by a somewhat predictable plot, dramas that are manufactured, and characters that can’t break away from convention. There’s no rule stating that every film has to reinvent the wheel, although it’s always nice when filmmakers go the extra mile for a more compelling story; with Filly Brown, directors Youssef Delara and Michael D. Olmos make it clear that they’re perfectly content to stay within comfortable parameters and give audiences just about everything they expect.
The central character is Los Angeles native Majo Tonorio (Rodriguez), a young hip-hop artist who performs regularly on a small web-based radio station under the name Filly Brown. Her raps, as would be expected, are truthful, edgy documentations of the world around her, none of which are censored or watered down by commercialism. Her mother, Maria (Rivera), is in prison on a drug charge, while her father, Jose (Lou Diamond Phillips), is barely getting by as a construction worker, whose latest client is a stuffy, racist British real-estate agent. Her seventeen-year-old sister, Lupe (Chrissie Fit), while not a bad person at all, is just naïve and immature enough for Majo to assume a tough, no-nonsense motherly role. Majo works for her uncle, the fair yet perpetually angry Mani (Emilo Rivera), a tattoo artist.
The plot is essentially Majo’s roller-coaster journey through the world of hip-hop celebrity. It’s kick-started when, during a prison visit, her mother claims that the police officer that arrested her is now under incitement and that her charge can potentially be overturned. During this visit, Maria gives Majo a set of hip-hop lyrics, which she says she wrote herself, and also informs Majo that, in order to start the process of being released from prison, thousands of dollars must be delivered to a man named Caesar. Majo desperately wants her mother out of prison. The same cannot be said about her father or her uncle; experience has taught them both to believe that Maria is nothing but a manipulator and a liar, and that whatever she’s up to now isn’t what it appears to be. Even Leandro, the family lawyer (Edward James Olmos), is reluctant to help Majo get her mother released.
The downside of Majo’s musical journey is that, in order to have even a shot at earning the money she needs, she will have to compromise her artistic sensibilities. Her hip-hop lyrics, normally so raw and streetwise, will now have to be more generic and marketable, while her plain and simple image must be dolled up into a sexual fantasy. She deludes herself into accepting these changes, while her DJ boyfriend, Santa (Braxton Millz), sees them for the creativity-killing gimmicks they are. As Majo desperately tries to break into the music business, she’s hit with a series of personal and professional setbacks, culminating with a rather implausible showdown between Majo, her family, her crew, and a vindictive man who, for reasons I won’t reveal, trashed Majo’s house with a baseball bat and beat Santa to the point of landing him in the hospital.
Returning my attention to Jenni Rivera, we obviously will never know what future, if any, she might have had in the movies. What I do know is that, in the case of Filly Brown, her first and last film, she rose to the occasion as an actress. She’s especially convincing during her final scene, during which she cries. She doesn’t merely fake a couple of sobs; genuine tears stream down her face, and her eyes express a combination of pride in her daughters and shame for not having been there for them, for falling victim to drug abuse, as well as for the failure of her marriage. Alas, her performance doesn’t prevent the film from being the uplifting human drama it should have been. This isn’t a bad movie, and there are aspects of it I liked, but on the whole, it doesn’t make enough of an effort.
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