Quinceañera won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival — only the second film ever to accomplish such a feat. I’m sharing this information with you in the hope that, when I describe the storyline in a minute, you won’t dismiss the movie as too domestic, or too ethnic, or too gay, or too minor.
Writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland live in Echo Park, an L.A. neighborhood where gentrification is squeezing out the Mexican culture and the story takes place there as well. Quinceañera addresses gentrification, of course, but only as part of a tale about two teens displaced from their families for sexual behavior that is at odds with tradition.
This is one of those movies where the story is so specific that it achieves a near-documentary feel. Adding to the sense of reality is a persuasive cast, including a number of non-professionals from the area. Glatzer and Westmoreland offer characters that actually sound and act like people, not avatars for cheeky screenwriters. How refreshing.
The film opens at a Quinceañera, a celebration marking the arrival of a 15-year-old girl into womanhood. Fourteen-year-old Magdalena (Emily Rios) watches the center of attention, her popular, pretty cousin Eileen (Alicia Sixtos), with great interest. Her turn is coming and more than anything, she wants a Hummer limo for the big day. She takes her case to her mother (Araceli Guzman-Rico), arguing that since she has agreed to wear an altered version of Eileen’s dress on her day, surely the family can afford the luxury. But her father (Jesus Castanos-Chima), a police officer and storefront preacher, will have no part of anything he feels would detract from the spirituality of the ceremony.
Then Magdalena gets pregnant and all hell breaks loose. She howls that she is a virgin, and technically she’s right. It seems that a heavy petting session with boyfriend Herman (J.R. Cruz) resulted in a, ahem, deposit on her leg that was close enough to ground zero for one of its extraordinarily determined little swimmers to reach its goal. But Magdalena is afraid to acknowledge sexual behavior of any kind to Papa Righteous, so she moves in with her great-uncle, Tio Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez, in a standout performance), a sweet old soul whose love and acceptance comes without conditions.
Also living with Tio Tomas in his small garden apartment is Magdalena’s black sheep cousin, Carlos (Jesse Garcia), who was thrown out of his house when his father learned he was visiting gay Web sites. Carlos was still a virgin at the time, but now, in his new home, he periodically hooks up for three-ways with the landlords upstairs, Gary (David W. Ross) and James (Jason L. Wood).
So there you have it. In a neighborhood where the longtime residents are being squeezed out, two teens and an old man try to make their own family.
I love that the filmmakers dare to include a gay couple with a taste for studly young Mexican-American guys. I love that Carlos is not turned into a rebel saint. I love that, even as her life is spinning wildly out of control, Magdalena keeps hoping for that Hummer limo because, hey, she’s 14 years old.
I loved the music, the color, the richness of the movie. Filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland address a number of weighty issues without battering the audience or cheapening the characters. Sweet, sad and thoroughly entertaining, Quinceañera is a small treasure; one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.