Eugene Carey explains why a charming tale of downtown disappointment is a small
triumph for Latino cinema
Quinceañera (Echo Park, L.A.)
Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
2006, Cinetic/Kitchen Sink
90 minutes (English)
LATAMROB rating: ****
AT LAST, a thoughtful and forward-looking film about young Latinos in the US that overcomes jaded Anglo cultural stereotypes and offers the characters a realistic and hopeful slice of the future.
A Sundance prizewinner, Quinceañera is a small triumph of context, refusing to anchor its second-generation Mexican American protagonists in unmoveable moral and religious conventions, crass memories and weary nostalgia from south of the border.
While hints of the traditional Latin vices of paternalism and dependency persist, the director understands his characters as sensitive and modern Americans able to overcome their condition with grit and determination.
The movie tells the story of Magdalena (Emily Rios) whose 15th birthday and hence traditional quinceaños coming-of-age celebration, approaches with all its hopes and dreams.
But her uncomplicated life is thrown into havoc when – having messed about just once with a boy – she discovers that she is pregnant as she tries on her gown for the special party.
Her father, a security guard and pastor whose character brings together the authoritarian traits of the Latino don, soon finds out and kicks her out of the house.
The father of the child is the typical spoiled Latino son in denial about scattering his seed around and unwilling, and unable, to live up to his responsibilities. Confused and fearful, Magdalena takes refuge with her great-granduncle Tomás (Chalo González) and her pot-smoking cousin, Carlos (Jesse Garcia), whose homosexuality and rebelliousness soon become apparent.
A sub-plot unfolds around the relationship that develops between Carlos and the gay live-in boyfriend of the landlord upstairs. The inevitable betrayal – and the cruel decision to evict the much loved Tomás, hastening the old man’s death – steer the tale towards what we might expect to expect if we were to have swallowed so much of the dross so far pumped out about Latinos by Hollywood.
But Carlos raises his game and begins to assume the responsibilities of a proxy father, discovering ambition in the process, as Magdalena learns how to problem-solve with admirable maturity.
Jesse Garcia is exceptional as the put-upon, angry but ultimately sharp Carlos, and creates a tangible dynamic with Emily Rios.
Quinceañera explores tolerance and understanding, as well as the paradoxical contrasts that weaken all communities and that make us the same everywhere: a teen pregnancy, an errant son, uppity gays, stubborn parents, and pointless traditions alongside glorious ones.
It is deeply perceptive about the many grey areas and flaws in human relationships, yet also refreshingly upbeat about the power of love and loyalty to overcome mistreatment. Just as Carlos comes good at the end, taking Magdalena under his generous wing, he draws attention at the funeral of Tomás to the man’s unselfish and saintly outlook. This was his achievement in life, not the hedonistic pursuit of gain.
The directors have done something genuinely worthwhile and memorable: there is no sense of panic about these kids in a largely hostile environment, just a positive determination to overcome and succeed combined, crucially, with the ability to do so.