Magdalena (Emily Rios), a young girl living with her family in Echo Park, a predominantly Hispanic area of Los Angeles, attends her cousin's fifteenth birthday, her Quinceanera, and she dreams of having an equally elaborate affair to celebrate her birthday in a few months. Flirting with her boyfriend, Herman, she kisses and hugs him, but doesn't go all the way. Her aunt offers to let her wear her cousin's dress because her family really can't afford an elaborate affair. She also offers to alter the dress for Magdalena. During the fitting, the fourteen year old realizes she is gaining weight. Soon, it becomes apparent she is pregnant. But her father, a preacher and part time security guard, doesn't believe she has never had sex and she leaves the home. Her great uncle Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez) takes her in and she becomes a part of the extended household which already includes her other cousin, Carlos (Jesse Garcia), a drift less young man who works at the local car wash, spends afternoons smoking pot, and was thrown out of his house for being gay.
"Quinceanera", written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, is a very good, very moving independent film which won the Grand Jury prize and the Audience award at the last Sundance Film Festival. You have never heard of Glatzer and Westmoreleand? They got their start in gay porn. Based on the quality of work shown in this film, I eagerly look forward to their next work. Errr… their next Independent film.
The key to the success of this film is the performances, particularly Emily Rios' portrayal of Magdalena. The character seems entirely natural and believable and I have to wonder if this is Rios' first film. I strongly suspect she came to this role an unknown. Magdalena is a 14 year old who has to deal with some problems in her life. Rios is very good showing this character's emotions, making us believe she is a real human being and not a fictional character created for a film. Because of her performance, we often feel like we are watching a documentary.
When she gets together with her friends, they are all wearing similar belts and variations on the same clothes. They talk about boys, what other girls were wearing today at school, etc. The refreshing thing is these kids are portrayed as normal. Perhaps struggling a bit in school, but they are living a normal life many people can relate to. Simply because they are Latina and living in a poorer part of town, they aren't involved with gangs, or get into fights, or any of the many other stereotypes we would be subjected to if this film were produced by a studio.
Magdalena's prized possession is her cell phone. The one piece of electronics she was able to save for, it keeps her connected to her friends and her family, but it also has a camera, so she records memories of her time with Herman, her boyfriend. When their relationship starts to deteriorate, she spends some time deleting his pictures from the phone, essentially deleting him from her life. It is a nice touch illustrating her ability to deal with problems in her life.
Jesse Garcia is also good as Carlos, Magdalena's gay cousin. Carlos is really a guy who would probably end up in a gang; he doesn't have a lot of prospects, he works in a dead end job, smokes pot, gets into trouble. But one day, he realizes he is gay and his world becomes very different, his perspective changes. His dad throws him out of the house and he goes to live with his Uncle Tomas. Yes, he still smokes pot, occasionally steals, but living with his Uncle rubs off on him. His Uncle's acceptance changes him. When Magdalena arrives, he suddenly has companionship, but isn't above treating her like his sister, arguing with her and trading insults. But he also feels like he has to help her.
Magdalena moves in with her uncle and cousin who live in a two bedroom guest house on a larger property. Soon, the new owners of the property move into the main house, a gay couple, and Carlos soon begins making frequent trips to "visit" his new friends. Later, he tells Magdalena he never had sex before he met them. All of this detail adds a lot of layers to his character, making him a memorable creation.
Chalo Gonzalez, much like Emily Rios, adds a lot of depth to the film, simply because he seems like a real person. As Uncle Tomas, he plays a wise elder, providing guidance when necessary. Considering his age and experience, he is well qualified. Even more important, he doesn't look down on anyone, let alone his fourteen year old pregnant niece of his gay nephew. He welcomes them with open arms as he is welcome within the community.
Later, as events transpire, Magdalena begins looking for a new place for them to live and finds a really nice, newly remodeled guest house owned by a Lesbian couple. One of the owners is very willing to let Magdalena's extended family move in, with her uncle's dogs, but the rent proves to be too high. Later, Magdalena returns and tries to work out a deal with the owner. As soon as the owner learns who her uncle is, he walks the neighborhood selling a traditional hot Mexican beverage from his large thermoses and once gave her a free cup of the drink; she agrees to let them move in at a very reduced rent.
Magdalena appears to have become pregnant without sexual intercourse, something her father doesn't believe but a clinic worker later confirms. How this happened isn't entirely clear, but I am sure thousands of teenage girls will be horrified to learn you can get pregnant simply by kissing a boy. This is a bit far fetched, but because the family is so religious (Dad has started his own church, her name is Magdalena) it is an acceptable stretch of the imagination.
Strangely, given the background of the filmmakers, the least interesting and convincing characters in the film are the gay couple who own the property where Magdalena lives with her uncle and cousin. They are a necessary part of the story, as they help Carlos experience his first sexual encounter, but they are portrayed as just a bit too stereotypical. Gary (David Ross), a Brit, has been in his relationship with James (Jason Wood) for six years with six months "off for good behavior". After they move in, they meet Carlos and share him during a sexual encounter. Later, Carlos starts to see Gary on a more regular basis. Throughout, these scenes are necessary to develop Carlos' story and character, but the couple is portrayed in a way that doesn't ring true.
"Quinceanera" is a very good film, filled with good performances and an occasional misstep. But in a way, this only makes the film seem all the more real and interesting; life is filled with missteps. Despite the age of the main character, I would advise people pay attention to the 'R' rating. This film is good for adults and for their children, provided they are able to prepare them for the adult material, or help them understand it after watching the film.