'Quinceañera' is a little miracle of a film. Written and directed by the sensitive team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland ('The Fluffer', 'Grief') this independent film garnered many awards at the Sundance Festival and rightly so. For the first time a film about the Latino community in Los Angeles is presented without the usual onerous stereotypes but instead with all the idiosyncrasies of a culture within a culture that respects place, time, extended family, the individual choices that demand courage, and the wondrously warm festivities and traditions that make this part of Los Angeles milieu so unique and special.
Made on a budget of around $250,000. with the money being raised by producers who solely believed in an idea (no script was ready at the time of solicitation of support) presented Glatzer and Westmoreland who lived in the Echo Park area of downtown LA and had witnessed the traditional coming of age at 15 with the special presentation to society of girls becoming women called Quinceañera: they felt a story was there. Gathering a cast of both known and unknown actors who felt as committed to the concept as the production team, Glatzer and Westmoreland wrote the script as the film progressed, using extemporaneous lines from the cast on set as part of the atmosphere. The end product is a loving, unpretentious, realistic story rendered without the slightest trace of treacle or overindulgence in histrionics or false sentimentality.
Magdalena (a strong Emily Rios) is 14, awaiting her quinceañera, knowing that her family cannot afford the extravagance of the event in which she has just been a participant. Her father is a preacher and will not consider spending money for a new dress or a limo for her party and while her mother supports Magdalena's wants, she succumbs to the realities of the finances of the family. Magdalena has a young boyfriend Herman (J.R. Cruz) and though they are careful with intimacy, Magdalena becomes pregnant without penetration. When her family discovers her pregnancy, no one will believe she is still in fact a virgin and she is castigated by her father (Jesus Castanos) and thrown from her home. Herman loves her but obeys his mother's wishes that he complete school and he leaves Echo Park, deserting Magdalena. Magdalena finds solace with her great granduncle Tio Tomas Alvarez (a brilliant Chalo González) who lives in back of a property in a home filled with love, memories, kindness, and tradition. He has also taken in the young pseudo-gansta Carlos (an impressively strong and hunky Jesse Garcia) who discovers he is gay when he comes out with the gay couple (David Ross and Jason L. Wood) who own the property in front of Tio's little place.
Gradually Magdalena and Carlos bond under the influence of their Tio Tomas, learning the important life lessons of family and self respect, healing from the injuries that are similar to the disappointments of Tio Tomas' past. It is the manner in which these three become a strong extended family, mutually supportive, that is the strength of the story, and when Tio Tomas suffers yet another disappointment in his life, he at age 81 dies quietly, leaving Magdalena and Carlos the richer for their time with him.
The supporting cast, drawn from professional actors, local theater and from the people of Echo Park, is uniformly strong and presents an unfettered sense of realism to the film. There are many exemplary moments: Magdalena and her father argue over her pregnancy in a bilingual fashion - the father screams in Spanish and Magdalena screams back in English, a finely integrated demonstration of the crossing of language and culture so well presented in the film; Carlos' eulogy at Tio Tomas' funeral is one of the more powerful monologues on film and is superbly delivered by the very talented Jesse Garcia; finally a look at the gay Spanish population so taboo in other films, again due to the fine acting of Garcia with Ross and Wood; and the preparations and executions of the actual quinceañeras are true to life. This is a film of love on the part of everyone involved and it is powerful in its simple realism. Highly recommended for everyone. Grady Harp, January 07