Written and Directed
by Wash Westmoreland
and Richard Glatzer
Premiered January 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival
Review by Stephen O. Murray
May 10, 2007.
Winner of both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and of the John Cassaveates Award from the Independent Spirit Awards, the very low-budget Quinceañera has been given a bonus-laden DVD release by SONY Classics.
From an engaging and informative “Making Of” featurette, I learned that the genesis of the project was a request by a Mexican-American Echo Park neighbor that the gay writer-director duo Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (who made the underappreciated The Fluffer) photograph their daughter’s quineañera—the Mexican (and Mexican-American) coming-of-age party on a girl’s fifteenth birthday. Glatzer and Westmoreland were fascinated by how elaborate the rite was and decided they wanted to make a feature movie about one.
They were able to persuade friends to invest a quarter of a million dollars in the endeavor before writing a script and were casting the movie while writing the screenplay—a screenplay that is all the more remarkably tight considering the circumstances and pressure under which it was written. And they managed to begin with one quinceañera and end with another.
The girl being officially re-cognized as a woman at the start is Jessica [Listette Avila], the offspring of a well-off Chicano couple. The main storyline, however, involves a cousin who is a few months short of 15 named Magdalena [Emily Rios], whose father [Jesús Castanos] is a security guard and fundamentalist preacher. Her parents are considerably less affluent, and her preacher father doesn’t want the “spiritual aspect” of the rite (who knew there was one!) sacrificed to vulgarities such as renting a super-sized Hummer limousine. Having consented to wear a redone version of her affluent cousin’s dress, Magdalena campaigns hard for the limousine.
Sounds like a sort of Cinderella story? There is a sort of cholo Prince Charming, Hernn, [J. R. Cruz], who aspires to medical school, but rather than meeting him at the ball, Magdalena and he make up from a break-up after some strained conversation while dancing at Jessica’s quinceañera. Soon they are back necking in the park (they live in the Echo Park neighborhood of L.A.) with her providing manual assistance to ejaculation.
They are safeguarding her virginity, yet the fittings of the hand-me-down quineañera dress puzzlingly involve letting out the waist and then having to let it out again. That is, she is pregnant. Her father and her friends are particularly miffed that she insists that she is still a virgin.
Magdalena’s father, very conscious of the role-model position he should exemplify, kicks her out. She seeks refuge with an uncle (a great-uncle or a great-great uncle or a great-great-great uncle: he is 70 years older than she is). Tomás [played by long-time Peckinpah assistant Chalo Gonzlez] has already taken in Magdalena’s cousin Carlos [Jesse Garcia], who had been thrown out of the house by his father when the father found that Carlos has been accessing gay Internet sites. (Carlos is also a virgin at the beginning of the movie and at his sister’s quinceañera, from which he had been banned and then is beaten up for crashing).
The cousins whose sexual irregularities have “brought shame on” their family are contemptuous of each other, though the example of their generous, nonjudgmental tió—along with being disappointed by their boyfriends—leads eventually to their bonding.
Carlos becomes the “boy toy” of guppie neighbors [David W. Ross and Jason L. Wood] who like to add a Latino to spice their bed. One of them falls in love with Carlos but opts to stick with his affluent, older partner, the Anglo villain of the movie, and the one who makes no amends to those he has wronged. (If the screenplay had been written by a Latino, the charge of gay-bashing of gentrifying gay male urbanites might have been made, but being written and directed by a pair of gay Anglos, it comes across as criticizing the callousness of some who fetishize the thug look and treat their sex objects as, well, disposable objects.)
The bond of a pregnant young outcast and a gay outcast recalls the long-ago one between Leslie Caron and Brock Peters in The L-Shaped Room. The lodgings, which Tomás has done much to make his own in 28 years of renting it, are not secure from spite in a poignant subplot. Gentrification is a major theme along with sexual fetishization and hypocrisy.
Carlos eventually has the occasion to make a passionate speech that leaves no dry eyes. Not unexpectedly (with the example of Tomás), blood turns out to be thicker than bile, and there is a very crowd-pleasing ending (unlike the one in The Fluffer that I thought was great but annoyed most other viewers).
Before that are parts that could be called melodramatic and soap opera-ish, but the mostly non-professional actors made most of what is shown seem real (Rios had never acted, and, brought up Jehovah’s Witness, had not herself had a quinceañera; García grew up in rural Wyoming).
The neighborhood where Glatzer and Westmoreland live becomes a character in the movie, and many Latino residents of Echo Park played Latino residents of Echo Park. The tiny budget mandated hand-held camera shooting, which gives the movie an ethnographic documentary look. The actors except for Gonzlez were not previously known to me (and I’d guess that most viewers would not recognize him either) and are very convincing.
Except for Tomás, none of the characters is without sin, though many (not least the preacher) eagerly cast stones. Magdalena’s hymen may be intact, but she has been providing a “sexual outlet” for Hernán, so that her father’s verdict of “fornication” applies.
Although there is no graphic sex in the movie, sexuality is certainly onscreen and teenagers grappling with their emerging sexuality and how that conflicts with the stringent demands of family “honor” are what the movie is most about.
The DVD aspect ratio is 2.35:1. The colors are vibrant and there is no shakiness in Eric Steelberg’s hand-held camerawork. The characters are bilingual and the default setting is for what is in Spanish to be subtitled (below the frame), but the disc may also be played with Spanish or French or Portuguese subtitles.
The “Making Of” featurette is as charming as the movie. As is common, everyone praises everyone else, but there is quite fascinating information on process and how so much was delivered to the screen for so little money.
Another bonus feature is the quinceañera remembrance video that the girls watch and comment within the movie (and which was the first part shot). The commentary track is candid, genial, and informative with Glatzner, Westmoreland, Rios, Gonzalez, and a García (who arrives late for the commentary-track recording, just as his character does for his sister’s quinceañera—though he was more welcome to the commentary-recording!)
Also see the movie’s contemporary gay/Latino L.A. gentrification rom-com, East Side Story.
First published 10 May 2007 by epinions
©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray