Quinceanera (2006)
Written & Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Starring: Emily Rios, Jesse Garcia and Chalo Gonzalez

Prejudice is an ugly but powerful force and one which we all must strive to overcome. Here we’re confronted with a movie which examines the lives of a couple Hispanics living in Echo Park, written and directed by two white guys gentrifying the neighborhood. That simple knowledge colors every aspect of the viewing experience, provoking a critical thread through ninety minutes most movies would escape. In the wake I’m left pondering whether the movie succeeds as a simple story about normal people or as a cunning example of how to bleach out a community in order to find common ground.

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If you’ve ever walked through the Mission and stumbled across a group of kids dressed as if they were getting married, it’s probably a Quinceanera, a fusion of religious and social customs, similar to the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, proudly celebrated when a girl turns fifteen. Magdalena (Emily Rios) is steadily approaching this special day with a mixture of embarrassment and hope. Her cousin had a Hummer Limo and extravagant party but she is facing the prospect of an altered dress and whatever her humble preacher/security-guard father can afford. These petty questions and days of gossiping with friends or grappling with her first boyfriend are about to suddenly end, with the coming-of-age ceremony looks less like a party and more a bleak reality.

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She’s pregnant, but she’s a virgin. No one, least of all her staunchly religious father, can believe these incredible claims so after a screaming fight she slips out to seek refuge with her Great-Uncle Thomas (Chalo Gonzalez) who is already harboring Magdalena’s outcast cousin, Carlos (Jesse Garcia), in his small home. Dreams of Hummer Limos take a back seat to more pressing concerns, like convincing her boyfriend that he needs to tell his mother about their child, and getting accustomed to the looks and whispers following her around school.

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Hidden within this skeleton are an array of organs all pumping away, but the interconnecting tissue isn’t getting the blood it needs. Too many stories stretch in too many directions with no clear focus– Magdalena provides the common thread for diversions into Carlos’ story, which begins to intersect with the landlords and by proxy the entire intrusion of upper class whites moving into a traditionally Hispanic district. The clash of traditional values and modern mores is attempted but most contemporary fathers would be enraged by their fourteen year old daughter becoming pregnant; the clash of upper and lower class is insinuated weakly, mostly buried by a plot diversion that comes as a well handled twist and ends up going nowhere. If this was an anthropological examination of Hispanic culture in Los Angeles we are lead to believe that they’re the same as everyone else except for some culinary flair and tourist video of street vendors and dollar store Mexican paraphernalia. The same movie could have been made about whites living in Anytown, U.S.A., or any majority culture in their majority region– the characters are essentially blank slates and every overture to authenticate this particular experience as belonging to any ethnic group or place feels painted on. Herein lies the question– why did two white guys make a movie about Hispanics in Echo Park?

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Regardless of whatever the intentions behind the movie’s genesis, there’s a lot of talent to be found in the cast. Emily Rios exudes a determination and maturity which belies her age. The emotional turmoil demanded for the character of Magdalena finds free expression without hysterics or over-acting. Jesse Garcia tackles the most difficult role with ease, fleshing out the surprisingly complex Carlos without resorting to stereotypes, playing extremes without losing the character’s foundation. Chalo Gonzales is a delight to watch, able to carry his scenes with twinkling eyes and compassionate understanding that hardly requires dialog. As would be expected the rest of the younger actors are a mixed bag of talent ranging from capable to horrible with the adults more adept at fulfilling their parts.

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If the storylines seem distracted the actual script suffers an unfortunate clarity. There’s some truly atrocious dialog, particularly between Magdalena and her conflicted boyfriend. Overall there script plays it straight with no snappy one-liners and no dramatic soliloquies, erring on the side of function over flash. Similarly the production is no-nonsense, although there’s a tendency to senselessly go hand-held which only adds to the tacked-on “National Geographic examines Mexicans” feeling I’m having a hard time shaking. And calling the main character Magdalena (as in Mary Magdalene) is a little too cute, isn’t it?

After a successful Sundance premiere Sony picked up the movie for distribution. The DVD has a clean anamorphic print and a rocking Dolby surround mix. Netflix? You betcha!

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