Filly Brown plays out like a caricature of every stereotypical Sundance drama about plucky young heroines who overcome great adversity just by sticking to their guns and never abandoning their dreams. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don't know how to dramatize the travails of a supposedly talented Latina rapper—"supposedly" because the song that's meant to prove she's a talented and soulful performer has laughably obnoxious lyrics that boast how Maria "Filly Brown" Tonorio (newcomer Gina Rodriguez) is true to herself because she doesn't have "fake tits" or that she's so fierce that she practically has two clitorises and will even take on "anyone with two tits." But these lyrics aren't apparently all that Maria's about; there's also her naïve free-style verses about how Latinos working minimum-wage jobs in Los Angeles go unnoticed by rich white folks. Maria's sophomoric calls for people to notice the guy that washes their cars is understandable; she is, after all, presented as a young, boastful star-in-the-making. But what's not as defensible is the constant way that neophyte screenwriter and co-director Youssef Delara defines Maria's world in broad and laughably klutzy terms.
Maria's story begins in prison. Her absentee mother, Maria Sr. (Jenni Rivera), is desperate to get out of jail, so she tries to convince her daughter that, since the police officer who originally arrested her has had his credibility questioned by his peers, there's a good chance that they can appeal her case. So Maria Jr., or "Majo" as everyone calls her, goes to lawyer and family friend Leandro (Edward James Olmos) and asks him to take on her mother's case. To make the money Leandro needs to start filing paperwork, Majo has to raise $5,000. She looks to earn that money by furthering her career as an aspirant rapper, performing on a popular radio program and getting noticed after using the saucy lyrics that Maria Sr. gave her.
Because Filly Brown's plot is almost totally clichéd, Majo immediately falls into the wrong crowd. She collaborates with Rayborn (Chingo Bling), a sleazy small-time booking agent that tells Majo to focus on the sexy and aggressive type of songs that her mother gave her the lyrics for. He also tells her to ditch the socially conscious stuff as it doesn't sell very well. Rayborn is so churlishly portrayed as a naked opportunist that his idea of making Majo's lyrics more "visceral" is to make Majo objectify herself more, gesturing toward his crotch and making a "V" with his hands. So Majo goes back to her mother's song about being a righteous sex object and adds hooks like, "C'mon, lick me, daddy, down." The gigs that Rayborn books for Majo consequently grabs the attention of an even more caricature-like villain: Big Cee (Noel Gugliemi), a scuzzy record producer that vaguely compares life to chess, saying that everyone needs to adapt to survive. Big Cee is a character so villainous that at one point he tells Majo, in the third person, that he's happy with her work. Big Cee's attitude winds up indirectly affecting the way that Majo talks too, as is noted when Santa (Braxton Millz), Majo's DJ and boyfriend, points out that she too has started to talk in the third person.
But that influence is negligible according to Delara and co-director Michael James Olmos, as Majo is meant to be seen as an incorruptible talent. This is visualized when she's in the recording studio with beatific golden light surrounding her head like a modern-day saint. Her essence isn't corrupted by the whirlwind pace of her success. That rise to fame is inexpertly represented by a cheesy montage of Majo's music being performed and then quickly absorbed and appreciated by everyone from bad-guy Big Cee to Majo's friends.
Still, there's no essential truthfulness to Majo's emotional journey. This is salient throughout Filly Brown, but it's especially apparent whenever she visits her mother. Maria Sr., who's revealed to be a drug addict, deteriorates the more the drugs she's taking affect her. And yet, she even looks like a monster in the very first conversation she has with Majo. In that scene, Maria Sr. is harshly front-lit, making her look like a ghoul or maybe just a ghost that Majo can't exorcise. That effect is especially lamentable when, at film's end, Majo raps at her mother about how she forgives her and that she knows she's a drug addict but wants to help her. There are other problematic subplots, such as Majo's father, Jose Tonorio (Lou Diamond Phillips), struggling to keep his job working as a day laborer for mustache-twirling racists. But the problems those plot tangents have are unimportant when you consider how seriously wrongheaded a film has to be to have the film's lead protagonist tell her mother something as delicate as professing her love and support for her than by singing about it. That's not a sign of a performer being true to herself, but rather a glaring indication of creative mismanagement on Delara and Olmos's part.
While it's more sensitive than most melodramas about elderly people suffering from diseases that affect their memory, Robot and Frank seriously flounders when its themes need to be most substantiated. This is an especially disappointing shortcoming given how well first-time filmmaker Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford manage to make what's essentially a light comedy about losing your memory both funny and involving. Admittedly, a large part of the film's success is dependent on Frank Langella's performance as Frank, formerly a thief and now a solitary old man that lives by himself in upstate New York. But the emotional message of Robot and Frank often gets garbled whenever Schreier and Ford try to establish the emotional resonance of their film's theoretically affecting message. It's true, taking the time to engage in activities with loved ones who are gradually losing control of their faculties is incredibly important, but there's just too many unconvincing details surrounding Robot and Frank's titular lead protagonist for his plight to ever seem really poignant.
Set in what one inter-title unhelpfully calls "The Near Future," Robot and Frank follows Frank as he struggles to accept that he's losing his memory. He wastes away in his country home until his more frustrated than aloof son, Hunter (James Marsden), gives him a robot caretaker (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to look after him. Frank is initially hostile toward the robot, but then gradually accepts the machine when he sees that his robot is willing to make concessions, like helping Frank keep his mind and body engaged by satiating his kleptomania. After Frank's favorite haunt, the local library, is threatened by Jake (Jeremy Strong), a petulant, know-nothing yuppie, he decides to steal a valuable illustrated edition of Don Quixote. And he does it with his robot's help. From there, Frank and his robot bond and plan an even bigger heist: stealing flashy jewelry from Jake's airhead wife.
The filmmakers do a fine job of making the otherwise ludicrous and patronizing account of Frank living with a debilitating condition work within the context of the film. Frank's need to steal things and the way he's helped by his robot are believably treated as humorous activities that keep the man stimulated. The robot doesn't care that being an accomplice to theft is immoral; he just knows that it will help Frank in the long run. Frank's robot isn't a wacky sidekick, but a sensitive and mostly well-spoken dramatic construct, a fact underlined whenever the robot infrequently reminds Frank not to get too emotionally attached to it as it's not really alive.
Weirdly enough, Robot and Frank's biggest problems don't stem from our not being able to take Frank's robot seriously, but from the depictions of the man relating to his family. Ford struggles to portray Hunter and his sister Madison (Liv Tyler) with evenhandedness, periodically slipping into the bad habit of sketching out these vital supporting characters with broad strokes. Madison is especially unbearable since she's depicted as a self-interested volunteer worker struggling to aid the residents of Turkmenistan, a country that Ford undoubtedly chose because he thought it had a funny-sounding name.
Because Madison and Hunter are characterized by their clueless and desperate actions, like how Madison pouts to her father that his robot is a bad influence since it makes Frank beholden to a machine, any time that Ford suggests that Frank's children are well-meaning isn't especially believable. And since so much of Robot and Frank's drama revolves around Frank moving from relying on his estranged family to developing a limited kind of independence, that shortcoming almost singlehandedly capsizes an otherwise likable story about a very sensitive subject. There are good ideas here, but they're not consistently conceived as well they could have been. Still, Schreier and Ford deserve credit for making the majority of Robot and Frank as charming as it is.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19—29.