Indie Drama Explores Culture Clash On The Streets Of L.a.

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
“I don’t like the way those carrots are looking at me.”
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A quinceañera is a very special time in a girl’s life. It is the day she turns 15, the day she becomes a woman. In Mexican culture, it is a time for celebration, a time to show off your daughter in all her womanly beauty. It is a time to buy huge white dresses, rent limousines and hire DJs. It is also, apparently, the age at which a girl becomes eligible for her own angst-heavy indie drama.

Quinceañera came out of this year’s Sundance (much like Little Miss Sunshine ) with a lot of hype and a big price tag to live up to. It ended up winning the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, putting it in such grand company as Forty Shades of Blue, Personal Velocity: Three Portraits, Chameleon Street, What Happened Was …, Three Seasons, Heat and Sunlight, Waiting for the Moon and other fine films no one’s ever heard of.

Quinceañera begins by introducing us to Magdelena (Emily Rios). Magdelena lives in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood. It’s an older area, just outside of Downtown. Though it’s long been a Hispanic neighborhood, the area is now rapidly being gentrified by yuppies and gay couples. It still looks like a traditional Mexican-American enclave, but Echo Park is just a few rent hikes away from being inundated with Starbucks.

Magdelena, none too coincidentally, is on the edge of her own changeover. She’s 14 years old and about to have her quinceañera celebration. But, as we see from the film’s opening sequence, a quinceañera isn’t quite the traditional social passage it used to be. These massive, multigenerational parties are now dominated by upwardly mobile parents practicing a sort of economic one-upmanship (whose family can rent the bigger limo?) and modern-day teenagers exploring their rapidly advancing sexuality (freak dancing in front of your relatives?).

Although Magdelena’s father, a preacher at a storefront church, insists that his daughter is different–more demure, more old-fashioned–an unplanned teenage pregnancy comes along rather quickly to bulldoze that particular idea. Fourteen and knocked-up, Magdelena is booted from her outraged parents’ house. She finds refuge, however, in the humble garden bungalow of her great, great uncle Tomas (Chalo González, who got his start doing Sam Peckinpah Westerns back in the ’60s). Tomas is one of those wise old types who tells wistful stories about the old days and forgives everyone their trespasses. He’s already offered shelter to Magdelena’s cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), a family outcast because of his tendency to be “a liar, a thief and a pot-smoker” … oh, and a homosexual.

Quinceañera takes its own sweet time in setting up the circumstances. The film is about a third over before our three main characters are fully introduced and put into place. After that, not much happens. Carlos gets involved with a middle-aged gay power couple with a passing fancy for Latino boys and inner-city chic. Magdelena tries to figure out the circumstances of her “miraculous” pregnancy. (She insists she’s never had sex with her boyfriend.) Tio Tomas doles out hot champurrado and sweet-natured advice.

In a considerable departure from their last film, 2001’s porn industry opus
The Fluffer , directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland do take up some interesting points here: nudging the Latino community for its lack of support toward gay men (not to mention unwed mothers) and prodding the gay community for its condescending, real estate-snatching ways. The film unfurls, however, as yet another indie kitchen sink drama.

Glatzer and Westmoreland have imparted a strong sense of place on the film (the duo actually lives in Echo Park) and they clearly harbor a great deal of affection for these characters. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t take its residents on much of a journey. The drama is all low-key, low-impact. It matches well with the film’s low budget (a reported $400,000), but it doesn’t ask the characters to do much heavy soul-searching. Instead of
The Winter of Our Discontent , we get That Month I Spent Sleeping on My Uncle’s Couch . As a result, the film’s too-tidy wrap-up feels rather undeserved.

Quinceañera isn’t your standard-issue examination of either Mexican-American or gay culture, and for that it deserves some attention. But it also seems to shortchange both demographics just a bit. As a warmhearted snapshot of time and place, Quinceañera serves its purpose. If only the filmmakers had found the time to dig a bit deeper beneath the intriguing cultural surface of their zip code.

“Damn pigeons.”

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