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Overall Rating

Awesome: 4.55%
Worth A Look90.91%
Average: 0%
Pretty Bad: 4.55%
Total Crap: 0%

3 reviews, 4 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Here's a rarity--a Sundance favorite that lives up to the hype"
4 stars

“Quinceanera” is a low-budget comedy-drama that touches on such diverse elements as teen pregnancy, homosexuality, neighborhood gentrification, estranged familial relationships and ordinary people coming to terms with things. In other words, it sounds exactly like the kind of earnest and well-meaning mediocrity that scores awards at Sundance (indeed, it took home both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize) but which most paying audiences would jump through hoops to avoid sitting through if at all possible. I understand this mindset completely–having seen more than my share of overrated Sundance winners over the years, I wasn’t exactly filled with excitement when I sat down in the screening room to watch it–but it would be a shame if people wound up dismissing it as just another predictably boring festival film instead of recognizing it for the sweet, low-key and occasionally surprising charmer that it turns out to be. In other words, it may have be a Sundance favorite but you shouldn’t let that stop you from seeing it.

A quinceanera, for those not in the know, is a rite-of-passage celebration that Hispanic girls go through on their 15th birthday–however, based on the one that we observe at the beginning of the film, whatever spiritual elements that may have once existed seem to have been pushed aside to make room for the flash and glitz. At this party, we meet Magdalena (Emily Rios), a young girl who is about to celebrate her own quinceanara in a few months and who is trying to convince her traditionalist father of the absolute necessity of hiring a Hummer limo for the occasion. Before long, the limo question falls by the wayside when Magdalena, after enduring a couple of weeks of nausea and mysterious weight gains, discovers that she is pregnant. This comes as a shock to her because, she insists, she has never actually had intercourse with her boyfriend but when she tries to convince her parents of this, her father, a part-time storefront preacher, hits the roof and kicks her out of the house.

Magdalena winds up moving in with her great-granduncle Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez), a wise and patient man who is old enough to understand that family ties are more important than anything else and is willing put a roof over her head until her father finally realizes this for himself. Currently, he is also housing cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), a young thug who was kicked out by his parents after being caught surfing gay websites. At first, Magdalena isn’t too thrilled with the arrangement but when she finds herself ignored by her friends and abandoned by the father of her child, she winds up growing closer to them and discovers that even a seeming troublemaker like Carlos has some good in him after all. At the same time, Carlos becomes involved with the gay Yuppie couple (David W. Ross and Jesse L. Wood) that recently purchased the property that Tomas lives on as an investment in a neighborhood on the cusp of gentrification. When that relationship goes sour, it goes very sour and has direct and lasting consequences on the futures of Tomas, Carlos, Magdalena and her unborn child.

Based on this description, you might assume that “Quinceanera” is just a feature-length version of one of those old After-School Specials from the 1970's that taught viewers Very Important Lessons with tales in which serious issues of the day were all magically explained and wrapped up in just under an hour. Happily, this is not the case because the writer-director duo of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have chosen to play the material with a restrained approach that prefers realism over melodrama. The characters behave like real people instead of cardboard figures being pushed around by the machinations of the screenwriters–Magdalena is a smart and generally practical girl who gets into a bad situation and tackles it in a direct manner and while Carlos gradually begins to reform and accept himself under the gentle influence of his cousin and great-granduncle. Even Magdalene’s stern father is painted less as a one-sided ogre and more like an authentic human being–his outrage at his daughter is based less on the fact that she is pregnant and more on his understandable belief that she is lying to him with her seemingly impossible insistence that she has never had intercourse.

At the same time, Glatzer and Westmoreland throw a number of curveballs into the narrative as well. For starters, it is almost a rule that a gay character in a low-budget independent film these days has to be either flamboyantly wacky or insufferably noble. Here, the characters of the two landlords and the parts that they play in the lives of Tomas, Carlos and Magdalena develop in a surprisingly realistic manner in which their sexuality plays only a small part in the proceedings. The filmmakers also quietly and effective show how the neighborhood where Tomas has spent almost his entire life is slowly but surely being eradicated in the name of “progress” as outsiders move in and drive up the prices to the point where the long-time residents can no longer afford to live there. And even though it is pretty much inevitable that a story like this would end on a happy note, Glatzer and Westmoreland come up with one that rings true by playing fair with the characters and what we know about them instead of simply pulling in a last-minute happy-face resolution in from left field.

Buoyed with winning performances (relative newcomers Rios and Garcia both make strong impressions and every single appearance by Chalo Gonzalez and Tomas is a treasure), warm humor and touches of honest-to-goodness sentiment, “Quinceanera” is a modest and highly appealing slice-of-life film that comes as a welcome respite to the recent avalanche of hard-sell blockbusters. In fact, I can see it catching on with audiences in much the same way that “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” did a few years ago (though I must stress that this film is so much the superior to that one that they hardly seem to be part of the same art form). The only problem with that might be that the title and subject matter might keep non-Hispanic audiences from taking a chance on it. That would be a shame because this is a film that is certain to entertain virtually everyone who encounters it, regardless of their ethnic persuasion.

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originally posted: 08/11/06 14:14:10
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/03/07 David Pollastrini didn't think much of it. 2 stars
8/15/06 Mase A LA movie, angelenos may appriciate more, entertaining for those who can relate. 4 stars
2/21/06 Gabby This movie is great!! =] 5 stars
1/28/06 xtc amateurish to be sure, but also authentic, funny, and insightful. 4 stars
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  04-Aug-2006 (R)
  DVD: 09-Jan-2007



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