One of the big winners at this year’s Sundance festival was “Quinceañera,” a low-budget, independent, Hispanic coming-of-age story. Unfortunately, it’s been very hard to find a theatre showing it because it has such limited distribution. In fact, I had to drive 50 minutes, over a mountain, to go see it. But I was damn glad I did.
For those who may not be aware, a quinceañera is a ceremony/party/life-cycle event that Hispanic girls undergo when they turn 15. Sort of like a Sweet Sixteen, Bat Mitzvah, or debutante ball. And that is how the film opens, with a rather lavish quinceañera complete with a ride in a Hummer-limo; apparently that’s something kids go for today. (Go figure.) Magdalena (Emily Rios) is the 14-year-old cousin of Eileen, the girl celebrating her quinceañera, and eagerly looks on with jealousy, knowing her turn will come in a few months, but worried her parents will not be able to afford all the conspicuous trappings her wealthier cousin got.
The party is interrupted by the entrance of the uninvited Carlos (Jesse Garcia), an estranged young man who is Eileen’s sister and Magdalena’s cousin. Although at first we do not know what has caused Carlos to be banished from his family—we think it might be because he is a petty thief—we later learn it is because he is gay and his traditional family disapproves of that lifestyle. His elderly great-great uncle, Tio Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez), seems to be the only member of the family who cares about Carlos and has taken him in. The two live in a house they rent from a yuppie gay couple, James and Gary (Jason L. Wood and David W. Ross). Carlos jumps into bed with James and Gary for fun threesomes, but when Gary, who is between jobs, starts having secret fun with Carlos when James is away at work, we suspect this can lead to trouble.
The plot thickens when Magdalena, who is being refitted and again refitted for her cousin Eileen’s hand-me-down dress, keeps getting bigger and bigger. Could a 14-year-old girl who has never had penetration sex be pregnant? Unfortunately, tests confirm she is. Her father (Jesus Castanos) who is a church preacher cannot deal with a pregnant daughter. When Magdalena leaves home, where does she go? To Tio Tomas, of course.
While at first Magdalena and Carlos may resent each other’s presence, they quickly bond; the two cousins and great-great uncle form their own blended family. It becomes very touching to see how all three help each other with their problems.
From here on, the plot gets a little predictable, but really that doesn’t matter. What becomes most important here are the characters. They are all very interesting and well-developed. Most have both good traits and bad traits, like real people. And their actions bring up some good moral issues, but not on a grand scale; rather they deal with small things that normal people can relate to. When Carlos steals a CD to give to Gary as a present, does that make him a bad person? When Gary cheats on James, does that make him bad? When Magdalena’s father won’t talk to her, does that make him bad? When Magdalena’s boyfriend (J. R. Cruz) listens to his mother and abandons Magdalena, does that make him bad? Maybe. But all these characters also exhibit many good traits too. You can’t easily categorize these people into simple good-or-bad groups the way you can Luke Skywalker and Emperor Palpatine.
Another “character” in the film, in a way, is the vibrant setting: the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. I loved how the movie gets the whole mood of the environment and you can really feel the Latino atmosphere as well as the changing nature of the community. There are great details like colorful Spanish signs, food stalls, and interesting characters, including Tio Tomas himself, who wanders through the neighborhood selling champuraddo (a thick chocolate drink).
The ending may come a little too easily and the rewards seem a bit superficial, but that really isn’t that important. What matters is the growth and interaction of the characters, and that in itself is worth seeing. If this film is actually playing near you—and when I say “near,” I really do mean within an hour’s drive—you should go. There aren’t many films worth driving an hour to see, but this is one of them.