Representing a considerable departure from their 2001 feature “The Fluffer,” which peeked behind the scenes of the gay porn industry, writer-director duo Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland provide a glimpse into the Mexican community of Los Angeles’ Echo Park in “Quinceanera.” Revolving around the 15th birthday ceremony that marks a girl’s passage to womanhood, this is a fresh, spirited drama, charming and unpretentious. It mines a similar vein to recent Latino-themed pics such as “Raising Victor Vargas” and “Real Women Have Curves” — albeit through a less rose-tinted lens — and should yield comparable commercial results.
Coming from Glatzer (who also directed 1994 gay comedy “Grief”) and Westmoreland, as well as exec producer and New Queer Cinema pioneer Todd Haynes, the film takes a somewhat audacious and refreshingly non-p.c. position in its unapologetic, amusingly critical view of upscale Los Angeles gay men via a power couple who become landlords as well as residents of the ‘hood.
Neighborhood gentrification is a part of the story, but its heart is the troubled coming of age of Magdalena (Emily Rios). The pic opens with a gorgeous widescreen splash of color and music as her cousin Eileen (Alicia Sixtos) celebrates her Quinceanera with all the frills.
As Magdalena prepares for her own party a few months later, she agrees to accommodate the budget concerns of her mother (Araceli Guzman-Rico) by wearing Eileen’s altered dress. She pleads, however, for the indispensable luxury of a Hummer limo for the day, but her strict preacher father (Jesus Castanos-Chima) refuses, insisting she focus instead on the spiritual side.
When Magdalena gets pregnant by her boyfriend Herman (J.R. Cruz), her family life falls apart, prompting her to run away and live with kindly old great-uncle Tio Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez) in his cramped garden apartment — in the building owned by the gay power couple (David W. Ross, Jason L. Wood) who live upstairs.
Magdalena becomes part of a family of exiles with her tough cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), thrown out of his house when his father discovered he was cruising gay Web sites. His first real homosexual experience turns out to be with the predatory guys upstairs. But when Carlos gets closer to the more sensitive of the two, the terms of the couple’s semi-open relationship are violated, prompting them unceremoniously to cut him out of the picture.
Indicating their model as the British kitchen sink dramas of the late 1950s and early ’60s, the filmmakers pull off a delicate balance in acknowledging their characters’ flaws yet viewing them with warmth and affection.
Through a technicality best kept as a surprise, Magdalena is a pregnant teen but also an almost innocent girl with respect for traditional values. Carlos is a surly pothead and petty thief, but his humanity is evident, particularly in a moving scene that follows a loss in the family.
Script’s upbeat conclusion deserves credit for refusing too-tidy resolutions.
Cast largely with inexperienced actors, the film benefits especially from the subdued, natural performances of Rios, Garcia and Cruz in the main teen roles.
In addition to the tender observation of its characters and effective hints of fly-on-the-wall docu-style, “Quinceanera” is distinguished by its casual yet illuminating insights into Latino family and community life.
This is most affectingly rendered through Tio Tomas, a beguiling character in Gonzalez’s effortless performance. (The 81-year-old thesp is a veteran of Sam Peckinpah movies like “The Wild Bunch.”) As a beloved neighborhood fixture who sells the sweet beverage champurrado out of a cart, he embodies a link between the traditions and history of immigrant families and their relocated situation in the north. And his unquestioning choice to provide love and shelter without judgment for Magdalena and Carlos enriches this small gem of a movie with a stirring soul.