FILLY BROWN, directed by Youssef Delara (who also wrote the script) and Michael D. Olmos, falls into a recognizable Sundance genre:  sagas of poor young women (usually ethnic) struggling to escape their poverty and make a better life.  Celebrated examples in festival history include Girlfight and Real Women Have Curves; Filly Brown, while it has its definite strengths, doesn’t quite measure up to those.

Although she uses the name Filly Brown when she’s rapping, the movie’s LA heroine is actually named Majo Tonorio (Gina Rodriguez).  She has a hard-working contractor dad (Lou Diamond Phillips) and a bratty younger sister (Chrissie Fit), and she works in her uncle’s tattoo parlor, but the key event of her young life is that her mother Maria (Jenni Rivera) is in jail on drug charges and has been since Majo was a child.  Her father has kept his daughters distant from their mother, but one day Maria sends Majo a poem with the idea Majo can use the text as lyrics for one of her songs.  When Majo goes to visit, Maria tells her that there have been developments in her case, and with a little money in the right places, her conviction could be overturned.  Majo, desperate for the chance to have her mother come home, does what she needs to in order to raise the cash–in particular, she signs with the loud-mouth manager Big Cee (Noel Gugliemi) who can push her toward a hit.
As the synopsis suggests, unpredictability is not what makes Filly Brown work.  The people in the movie who appear trustworthy when we meet them generally are–Majo’s father, her uncle, her mother’s attorney (Edward James Olmos), the loyal DJ who only wants her to create her best work–and the seemingly sleazy turn out to be exactly that.  Delara’s dialogue, too, is often ham-handed and obvious, with few gradations between light and dark, and visually, the direction is rarely more than rudimentary.
And yet the picture has real force and emotional payoff.  Some of that is simply because of the old saw that cliches become that way for a reason, but much of it is due to the acting.  Rodriguez, in particular, is a powerhouse both as an actress and rapper, and she carries much of the movie on her back.  Phillips, too, has his best role in years and runs with it.  The final scene, in which Majo performs a capella and her father is among those who watch, has fire and pain to spare.
Filly Brown is more likely to be a calling card for its makers, particularly Rodriguez, than a broad success on its own.  Despite its flaws, the movie delivers some of the raw talent that Sundance is all about.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."