Music’s School of Hard Knocks produces another alumna in “Filly Brown,” a gritty and well-acted Latin hip hop variation of a long reliable formula.
Gina Rodriguez delivers a breakout performance in the title role, a tough, two-fisted rapper named Majo whose two goals in life intersect — to become a star under the name Filly Brown, and make enough money to get her mom (the late Jenni Rivera) out of prison.
When Mom couples another plea for help with some scribbled down rhymes, the “lady on the mike,” vows to make use Mom’s words and make her move. She finds herself a DJ (Braxton Millz) who can produce “a mix that drips” and sets her eye on catching the attention of record label owner Big Cee (Noel Gugliemi).
“He liked what I spit,” she enthuses. Then come the compromises — the need to “sex it up” and “merch it up.” And then come the family complications, fresh barriers to her success and her credibility.
What’s truly novel here is the world captured by writer-director Youssef Delara and his co-director Michael D. Olmos. It’s insular and self-sustaining. Need cash? First ask Uncle Mani (Emilio Rivera), who makes a mint with his tattoo business. Need exposure? Go on Khool-Aid”s Latin hip hop web radio show.
Rodriguez gives a fierceness to this character that makes it only natural for the guys she’s confronting to try and calm her down with “Relax, dude.” She’s comfortable with the slang and charismatic at the mike.
A couple of veterans of the Latin film scene lend “Filly Brown” some gravitas. Edward James Olmos is the lawyer who sees more to Majo’s mom than she’ll let herself see. And Lou Diamond Phillips plays the hard-working contractor father who is dealing with his own “stay true to yourself” issues when his work is threatened by white Realtors who don’t like seeing tattoo-covered crews working on their properties.