Some things are allowed at the "Quinceañera," a kind of "Sweet 15" party and traditional Mexican celebration in which a girl turning 15 makes her symbolic venture into womanhood. Dancing stripper-style around a glowing pole placed in the interior of a stretch Hummer, for one. Doing a dry-hump dirty dance at the Quinceañera reception, for another.
Dressing in floral shades of maroon and pink and, for one day, playing at being a bride surrounded by friends and family celebrating your feminine charms.
But getting pregnant at age 14 on the eve of your Quinceañera? Definitely not a cause for celebration for Magdalena (Emily Rios).
Magdalena is a pragmatic, flinty preacher's daughter living in the close-knit Latino enclave of Los Angeles's Echo Park. She takes what her wannabe boyfriend Herman (J.R. Cruz) says with a grain of salt, and she is respectful but a little tired of her father's stodgy religious values. But Magdalena is also just 14 years old, and thus prone to making choices guided more by romance and desire than common sense. She is certainly not above letting sweet-talking Herman convince her to take chances, even if his repertoire of seduction includes such boneheaded teenage boy morsels as, "Your titties are so big!"
This Sundance Film Festival dual Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner begins as Magdalena finds the buildup to her own Quinceañera virginity-party ruined by imminent childbirth.
Abandoned by Herman and condemned by her conservative father, Magdalena takes up residence in a kind of alternative family at the home of her great-great uncle Tomas (Sam Peckinpah-vet Chalo Gonzalez). Tomas lives in a small but paradisiacal garden cottage behind a house recently bought by a pair of gay yuppies.
Tomas is also sheltering another Echo Park pariah, Carlos (Jesse Garcia), a directionless gang-banger with a job at the local car wash.
Carlos is unwelcome in his own home because of the area code tattooed on his neck, the "troublemaker" tattoo on his belly and his acquaintance with gang custom. But he also is an exile because this swaggering, inured-to-violence man is gay.
Together, the trio forms an odd but remarkably cozy, loving family. Tomas is their shelter from the traditional values of their Latino community, but also a connection to something deeper and more profound than their own immediate problems. He encourages Magdalena to stay in school and is reassured when Carlos finds a boyfriend, telling him, "I'm glad you have a special friend."
For this and so many other reasons, Quinceañera is a film that defies expectations at nearly every turn. It defies expectations about what Latinos "are like," expectations about its characters, about appearances, about age. Just one example of how thoroughly the film forces us to confront our own stereotypes is the lovable, gentle Tomas. At 83, Tomas has lived through his mother's illness, which robbed him of the chance to pursue his true love, and an attempted suicide as a child. But his experiences have made him softer rather than harder. He is more accepting of his pregnant teenage niece Magdalena and his gay nephew Carlos than anyone in either of their families.
It is hard to think of a film centered on Mexican-Americans featuring characters as complex, fully drawn and dynamic as the ones who populate Quinceañera. The film is simply too committed to rendering life as it truly is to trade in easy, obvious issues.
Quinceañera tackles a number of provocative ideas. The ground covered ranges from sexism in the Latino community, to the conflict between traditional Latino values and the text-messaging fixations of the next generation, to the threats posed by hipster gentrification of "hot" Echo Park. But Quinceañera treats all those issues without ever losing its focus or succumbing to PC stereotype.
One of the most moving features of Quinceañera is how deeply it gets you under the skin of Carlos, Tomas, Magdalena and an entire community that operates in a nearly separate reality from the whiter and more prosperous elements slowly edging in on their neighborhood.
"You live in a whole other world, don't you?" says the younger gay man Gary (David W. Ross), who has moved into the house whose back-yard cottage Tomas has occupied for the past 28 years, and who strikes up a sexual relationship with Carlos.
"No, you do," answers Carlos.
Carlos makes it clear that this Latino neighborhood is not something to be "discovered" or gentrified by white Angelenos, but a reality unto itself into which people like Gary and his lover James (Jason L. Wood) are the interlopers.
The fact that Quinceañera is executive-produced by a gay, politically astute director with credentials such as Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine underscores the gritty truth and sensitivity to life's complexity that runs through the film. That the film was directed by two gay men who lived in a Latino neighborhood -- Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland -- endows the film with the perceptiveness that real experience often gives. The directors are able to create both interesting gay characters like Carlos and an accurate rendition of a Latino community. But they are equally able to show how the incursion of white, gay men (or heterosexuals, for that matter) into old-school neighborhoods can make life difficult for the people, whether black, Hispanic or poor and white, who have always lived there.
And it's a lesson as relevant to Atlanta's own Kirkwood or East Atlanta as it is to Echo Park.