It’s easy to see why Quinceanara picked up the Audience Award at Sundance — it has “crowd-pleaser” writ large over every frame. It’s a little harder to understand it copping the festival’s dramatic Grand Jury Prize, since the film, while certainly a pleasant and worthy attempt, is both significantly flawed and a little troubling in its over-simplifications. Both the flaws and the simplifications may be the result of trying to cram altogether too much into its 90-minute running time.
The storyline itself is not terribly complex. To some extent, it sticks pretty firmly to the formula of a standard coming-of-age movie. As she approaches her quinceanara (a celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday and entry into womanhood), Magdalena (newcomer Emily Rios) discovers that she’s inexplicably pregnant, a fact that plays badly with her conservative father (newcomer Jesus Castanos), who throws her out of the house. She takes up residence with her ostensibly gay great-grand-uncle Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez, Breakout), who is already offering sanctuary to her cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia, Delivery Boy Chronicles) in his basement apartment in an increasingly gentrified section of Echo Park.
Apart from the slightly too convenient explanation of how she got pregnant, there’s little here that’s out of the ordinary — a straightforward set-up for a family and extended-family drama about ostracized teens. But filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (themselves a gay couple) want the film to be more — and while they get at least something of the more they want, they pay a price for their accomplishment.
The pair call their production company Kitchen Sink after the British movement in film spearheaded by John Schlesinger, Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz in the 1960s (and still practiced today by Ken Loach and Mike Leigh), but it’s hard not to look at their film and believe that the kitchen sink in this case is a Moen designer model. It also seems that they’ve tried to throw everything and said sink into Quinceanara. Some of it works; some of it doesn’t. Some of it looks altogether too much like a fat slab of self-loathing (that’s the troubling part).
Considering that the “villains” of the piece — or villain, since one is only guilty of decency-negligence — are a pair of upscale white gays, Gary (newcomer David W. Ross) and James (Jason L. Wood, Jackson), who own the house above Uncle Tomas’ basement apartment. They’re more than happy to use Carlos as a sex object and just as happy to dispossess Uncle Tomas from his home of 28 years. That this is at least partly motivated by James getting jealous of Gary’s actual feelings for Carlos isn’t enough to take the mickey out of the shallow depiction of an Echo Park gentrifying gay couple by the filmmakers, themselves an Echo Park-gentrifying gay couple. There’s simply not enough — certainly not enough positive — about Gary and James to make them more than unlikable caricatures.
The film is on much surer footing with Carlos, who, not entirely unlike the guys in Brokeback Mountain, represents a kind of gay character — not terribly articulate or educated — rarely even hinted at existing in movies. This is refreshing and, for some people, possibly even eye-opening. Similarly, the film scores with Magdalena and her realistic relationship with her boyfriend, Herman (newcomer J.R. Crus), which is painted in sympathetic and believable strokes. Uncle Tomas is a rich character, too, even if his place in the plot ultimately becomes completely formulaic as a very old device. But all in all, the film is so appealing and so human (at least when it keeps its focus) that it’s hard to resist its charms. Rated R for language, some sexual content and drug use.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke