Quinceañera uses naturalistic acting, realistic characters and actual urban settings to present a schematically developed story that reveals itself through too much talk and not enough palpable action.
What saves it from being a wash -- besides the lovely performances -- is that it does present a cohesive, intriguing vision of an American community. In this case, it's the Mexican-Americans who live in Los Angeles' quickly gentrifying and Anglo-cizing Echo Park neighborhood. After you see Quinceañera, you might not be moved by where the story went and how -- especially the weird "immaculate conception" angle -- but you will feel its characters actually live in this place.
Many of them do, too. Directors/writers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland -- whose previous film, The Fluffer, was set in the world of gay porno films -- themselves live in Echo Park. It was their interest in learning about the customs and traditions of the longtime Latino residents that set the film in motion.
A "quinceañera" is a celebration for a Mexican girl's 15th birthday, and the film begins and ends with one. They also cast nonprofessional neighborhood residents in many of the roles. Emily Rios, who plays 14-year-old Magdalena, is an especially wonderful find.
Quinceañera won both the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, probably because its glimpse into the world of working-class Mexican-Americans seemed timely and authentic.
There's also a gutsy undercurrent to the film. It's about outsiders forming communities in the face of prejudice from their own families -- a classic American-independent-cinema theme.
Echo Park -- also the title of a sweet but contrived 1986 movie starring Tom Hulce and Susan Dey -- looks perfectly Los Angeles working-class here, which is very different from Midwest or Northeast working-class. Yes, the shopping carts and graffiti and crowded housing is still there, but so too are the perennially bright sunshine, the lush foliage and backyard gardens with makeshift shrines.
As the film opens, the attractive, mature-looking Eileen (Alicia Sixtos) is celebrating her quinceañera in the style her reasonably well-off parents can afford. She and her friends get escorted around town a monstrously gigantic Hummer limousine. They clown around doing the bump-and-grind on a stripper's pole installed in the back-seat area.
That's typical of the film's nice eye for small detail. So, too, is the cutaway from their party to the scene introducing Eileen's short but beefy older brother Carlos (Jesse Garcia) stomping down the street like Saturday Night Fever's Tony Manera. There's a big ugly "213" tattooed on the back of his neck. When he comes to the party, their father throws him out -- we assume, because of the tattoo, that he's a gangsta.
But it's typical of how Quinceañera works -- and also how it presents false clues, a sort-of cheat that more experienced writers would disdain. He's actually a sweet young man with a nice demeanor who lives with his great-granduncle Tio Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez), who sells food from a street cart and is a neighborhood institution.
So why then is he an outcast? That becomes clear when he visits his new landlords -- two white gay men (David W. Ross and Jason L. Wood) who have moved into the larger house on the property and are fixing it up as if Dwell will soon arrive for a walkthrough. Cinematographer Eric Steelberg, working in high-definition video, strings together still, quiet shots of their home's interior as a way to portray their personalities.
When they casually ask Carlos' age, he responds, "Old enough." (He's an adult, actually.)
Quinceañera's exploration of the attitudes of gay yuppies to the "Latin boys" in their adopted neighborhood gives the film some surprising sexual edge. The film also looks the new residents' attitude toward gentrification and displacement of the poor. But these explorations are done in narrative shorthand -- a scene here and there, a rushed plot point.
The concomitant story is about Magdalena, Carlos' and Eileen's cousin who is getting ready for her 15th birthday. She looks much younger and less sophisticated than Eileen. There is still baby fat in her cheeks and a childlike quality in her easygoing smile. Her excited chatter is as much Valley Girl in its syncopation as Mexican-American.
Rios plays her with a wonderfully relaxed camera presence -- and she's as beautifully photogenic in her close-ups as young Q'Orianka Kilcher was in The New World.
It's a shame, however, that Glatzer and Westmoreland couldn't have written something better for her character to do. Basically it's some nonsense about her getting pregnant and being thrown out of the house by her intolerantly conservative dad, a security guard and weekend preacher.
It's meant to be a crucial plot point that she's still a virgin, thus setting up a religious allusion that the writers/ directors seem to be ever-so-softly mocking. But while that might have worked in a more satiric movie like Saved!, Quinceañera is too naturalistic to buy into this, despite the film's attempt to offer an explanation.
But the final quinceañera makes for a tender ending. These dressed-up kids slowly and proudly emerge from their rented Hummer limo, one by one, as if they're the biggest movie stars in the world arriving for a premiere. It's almost enough to make you forgive Hummers -- they could never do that in a fuel-efficient Mini. Grade: B-