Film-Forward Review: [QUINCEAÑERA]

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Magdalena (Emily Rios) & Carlos (Jesse Garcia)
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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Directed & Written by: Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland.
Produced by: Anne Clements.
Director of Photography: Eric Steelberg.
Edited by: Robin Katz & Clay Zimmerman.
Music by: Micko & Victor Bock.
Released by: Sony Pictures Classics.
Language: English & Spanish with English subtitles.
Country of Origin: USA. 90 min. Rated: R.
With: Emily Rios, Jesse Garcia, Chalo González, Jesus Castanos-Chima, Alicia Sixtos, J. R. Cruz, David W. Ross & Jason L. Wood.
DVD Features: Commentary by the writers/directors, producers, location manager Natasha Giraldo, director of photography & cast. “Behind-the-scenes” featurette with cast & crew interviews. Los Angeles premiere featurette. Bonus scene, “Mis Quince Anos” video. Spanish & Portuguese audio. French, Portuguese & Spanish subtitles.

Tucked in the hillside between downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood, Echo Park, once a film industry enclave during the silent era, has long been a backdrop for such films as Chinatown and Laurel and Hardy’s romp The Music Box, where the duo haplessly hauled a piano up an outdoor flight of stairs (Vendome Street, to be precise). Nearly 75 years later, same location, but a different city: the neighborhood is largely Latino undergoing gentrification. And at the top of these same steps, Quinceañera’s Magdalena (Biblical connotations surely intentional) has her usual after-school rendezvous with her boyfriend (unbeknownst to her strict parents).

A preacher’s daughter, Magdalena (Emily Rios) is an instantly identifiable type: an America’s Next Top Model fan who lives and dies by her cell phone. She, like her family, fluidly shifts from speaking Spanish to English. In Magdalena’s case, any given statement ends in an upper reflection, like, I mean, you know, a question. Her most pressing need is to have a hummer limo for her fast-approaching quinceañera, a coming out party (like a debutante) for just-turned 15-year-old Latinas. With a plot that’s as transparent as her character, it will be obvious to viewers, as it already is to her aunt, why Magdalena can’t fit into her pink quinceañera dress. Magdalena’s pleas that, despite her pregnancy, she is still a virgin are rejected by her evangelical father, who throws her out of his house. She takes refuge at the home of her 83-year-old great-uncle Tomas (Chalo González), a grandfatherly figure beloved by the entire neighborhood. But his bungalow is already a little crowded: her cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia) the cholo, also tossed out of his parent’s home, has staked his territory there. Rumor has it his dad caught him with a guy.

It’s no surprise this sentimental and easy-to-please film won the audience and the grand jury award at this year’s Sundance. The gay and ethnic trappings aside, the film’s really about two outcasts/underdogs against the world. Fast paced and accompanied by a buoyant soundtrack, the film keeps up with the teenagers’ raging hormones, beginning and ending at a quinceañera. From the Reggaeton blaring in a limo to the bump and grind at the following reception, directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland throw you into the celebrations, and the feel-good vibe never diminishes. (But it will be interesting to see if this film can be marketed toward the art house niche, a Latin audience, as well as the gay crowd, or if all three will cancel each other out.)

With plenty of humor, this light drama is in the same vein as Real Women Have Curves, but without that film’s heroine’s spunk. Also set among working-class Los Angeles Latinos, Ana Garcia (America Ferrera) repeatedly confronts her judgmental mother and takes control of her life, including purposely losing her virginity. But Magdalena, technically speaking anyway, is still a virgin. She is not only also less decisive than Ana, but more a victim of circumstance. That she technically is still “pure” is too easy a balm for her father. Also anti-climatically, both Magdalena and Carlos, first dismissive of each other, rather easily become friends. And in contrast to the saintly Uncle Tomas, the tough-but-tender Carlos, and even the ordinary and rather nondescript Magdalena, the neighborhood’s white and affluent gays are flatly one-dimensional. This is odd, considering both directors have been more than at home with gay characters in Glatzer’s ensemble comedy Grief and the directors’ gay-porn industry drama The Fluffer. Kent Turner
August 4, 2006

DVD Extras: The succinct, informative 20-minute “Behind-the-scenes” includes the biographical and filming experiences of the actors during the 18-day shoot. Noteworthy is learning actor Chalo González’s background with director Samuel Peckinpah, seeing photographs of codirector Wash Westmoreland’s great-uncle, who inspired the role of Uncle Tomas and the film’s moving eulogy, and actor David W. Ross (one of the neighbors), from his British boy band days.

The commentary repeats the information in the featurette, but also expands on the casting, location choices scene by scene, and the central theme of gentrification in the Echo Park neighborhood as the cast and crew observed it directly before, during and after the filming (that real Watts Towers-like backyard “altar” was a victim to development). They recall which scenes were revised and improvised (all the teenage girl trash talk, and the strippers’ pole in the rented limo was a surprise). Film buffs will be interested to hear of the directors’ inspirations in British kitchen sink dramas, with plot, dialogue and shot comparisons to such classics as Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life and Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey, as well as to Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night and even Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

A fun bonus is the full two-minute fictional “Miss Quince Anos” video, which also incorporates footage from the real quinceañera the filmmakers made for their neighbor that inspired their film. Nora Lee Mandel
January 8, 2007



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