by Mel Valentin
Teen pregnancy, homosexuality, class, racism, gentrification, assimilation, acculturation, tradition, religion, and tolerance: alone, they seem like subjects ready-made for an ABC Network "After School Special" circa 1978. While that's partially true, it doesn't come close to describing Richard Glatzer ("The Fluffer") and Wash Westmoreland’s ("Gay Republicans," "The Fluffer") "Quinceañera," an indie film that won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Despite rough edges due to an inexperienced cast, indie production values, and the occasionally mishandled scene, the audiences and jury at the Sundance Film Festival were right to give "Quinceañera" dual awards. Yes, it’s that good. Yes, it’s that thought-provoking, even challenging, but it’s also not didactic or preachy (thankfully).Magdalena (Emily Rios), a bright Mexican-American girl living in Echo Park, Los Angeles, is looking forward to the traditional rite of passage for Latin American girls turning fifteen, Quinceañera. Her cousin, Eileen (Alicia Sixtos), has just had her Quinceañera, a semi-lavish bash complete with a stretch hummer and a live band. Magdalena’s family isn’t quite as well off. Her father, Ernesto (Jesus Castanos), works a job as a security guard to make ends meet, but his passion lies in his small church where he’s the pastor. Not surprisingly, he’s strict, jealously guarding his daughter’s honor (and her virginity). As a typical teenager, Magdalena has already developed an interest in boys, specifically Herman (Ramiro Iniguez), a high schooler dreamer who hopes to travel the world (and become a doctor to live up to his family’s expectations).
"A well-crafted, insightful, and yes, moving indie film."
At Eileen’s Quinceañera, Carlos (Jesse Garcia), Eileen’s estranged brother shows up. One rough confrontation later with his angry father, Walter (Johnny Chavez), and Carlos is kicked to the curb, shirt covered in blood. Luckily, Carlos has a place to sleep, with his great-uncle, Tomas (Chalo González). Tomas may be in his early 80s, but he’s still spry enough to walk the neighborhood with his makeshift shopping carts selling drinks. Carlos lives with Tomas for a reason: his traditional family not surprisingly refuses to accept Carlos’ homosexuality.
Magdalena’s life takes a turn for the worse when she discovers that her recent weight gain isn’t due to overeating, but to an unwanted pregnancy. Magdalena claims innocence (or at least partial innocence), but her strict, rule bound father thinks otherwise and her mother, Maria (Araceli Guzman-Rico), ends up following Ernesto’s lead. In short order, Magdalena is carted off to live with Tomas and Carlos. At first, Carlos treats Magdalena rudely, but gradually their outsider status makes them allies. Meanwhile, an affluent gay couple, Gary (David W. Ross) and Simon (Dane Rosselli), has purchased the property they live on. Gary and Simon take an instant liking to the Carlos, whom they see as an exotic plaything.
With Magdalena facing life-altering changes in her immediate future, Carlos exploring his sexuality, and Tomas clashing with his new landlords, the three central characters are ripe for disappointment and suffering. Glatzer and Westmoreland refuse to pander, though. While more experienced moviegoers can and will guess Quinceañera’s plot turns three or four moves ahead of the characters, Glatzer and Westmoreland never succumb to cheap, pandering sentimentality, preferring understatement, observation, and character action to convey themes and subtext. In other, less assured, hands, Quinceañera could have turned into an insufferable, preachy mess. Luckily, that’s not the case here.
With so much going on, themes and subtext might float by without too many moviegoers noticing. In one standard-length, feature film, Glatzer and Westmoreland (professional partners in a long-term relationship), examine issues central to the Latino immigrant experience in the United States, e.g., how to balance respect for tradition versus changing realities and different cultural values, how to balance religious faith with the unexpected events that intrude into everyday life, and how to balance gentrification with providing affordable housing for the poor and the working class.
There’s more, if we keep looking. Glatzer and Westmoreland turn their critical attention on affluent gay, white couples, on the decidedly mainstream values they hold, conscious (e.g., money, consumer goods) or subconscious (their treatment of minorities). The picture Gary and Simon represent, shallow, materialist, and flawed, makes them unlikable characters. Frankly, they are, but they also function as catalysts to kickstart Quinceañera’s touching third act as Magdalena attempts to take on more responsibility than her age, experience, or lack of resources, will allow.Ultimately, though, Glatzer and Westmoreland prove to be talented filmmakers, crafting the type of indie film that gets made too rarely these days: a small, character-driven film that entertains, even as it examines complex, often contentious social issues, providing audiences with much to think about without telling them what to think, even as it points to a hopeful, perhaps too hopeful, future for its fully-fleshed out, three-dimensional characters.
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originally posted: 08/03/06 19:47:27