Leading star Gina Rodriguez has been attracting considerable and well-deserved attention for her brilliant breakout performance in Filly Brown, coming from an acting background to then shine as an aspiring hip-hop artist in co-directors Youssef Delara and Michael D. Olmos’ second film together.
The opening scene introduces us to Majo (Rodriguez), a.k.a. Filly Brown, rapping on a local radio station over one of the finest first songs I’ve heard in a while, at once feel-good but also tempered by the experience Majo brings to the mic as a young second-generation Mexican girl growing up in L.A.
With her mother in jail, and in need of money fast to re-open her case, Majo makes a series of decisions that see her sacrificing the honesty of her music she’d sworn to herself and fellow artist, DJ Santa (Braxton Millz), to stay true to. Yet she never loses the fire that bursts forth – in her vocals and actions – from the first scene, slapping a big-shot rapper across the face for touching her behind.
Finding herself in the role of part-matriarch, part-kid growing up making some tough and bad decisions, Majo is a vibrant and determined character surrounded by friends and family who love her. Lou Diamond Phillips gives a great performance as a guilt-ridden father trying to raise his two daughters by himself, and Noel Gugliemi is his usual excellent self as the record label owner promising to take Filly Brown to the next level.
When her world comes spiralling down around her, her family and friends are all she has left to turn to, propelling the film towards a powerful climax that tugs at the strings of the heart.
Much will be, and has been, made of Rodriguez’s impressive performance in the lead, working not just as actress and rapper, but also writer of some of the lyrics as well. She carries the film with seeming ease, hitting all the right notes as we watch her character’s trajectory.
If hip-hop isn’t a music genre that attracts you, please don’t let that dissuade you at all from watching Filly Brown. At its core, it’s a character-driven piece that has a female rapper as its protagonist; the music is essential (and brilliant), but the film has seen a wide appeal beyond the hip-hop demographic. It’s a film that speaks to the story of being a second-generation Latina in America, and it’s one that we don’t get to see in cinema that often.
My only wish would have been for there to have been more of Majo’s music, because it really is so good. But there is plenty there to be amazed by, and the final scene sees the film close out with arguably the best song on the entire soundtrack, leaving you wanting more.