In an independent movie’s never-ending quest for recognition, a film festival is often the first and most popular platform for support. For most, a film’s accepted entry in such a competition is the only measure of success it will find but, for a select few, critical laurels and jury awards soon follow. Unfortunately, most winners soon learn that festival accolades rarely translate into widespread consumer enthusiasm. Quinceañera, the 2006 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award Winner, met the fate of most competition winners by following festival success with moderate box office returns. This outcome, though, may have less to do with a ‘Sundance curse’ than with specific failings of the film itself.
Set in the rapidly gentrifying Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park, Quinceañera chronicles a tumultuous period of one extended Mexican-American family as they and the world around them are forced to adjust to life’s unavoidable changes. The film opens with 14-year-old Magdalena (Emily Rios) attending the lavish quinceañera — the traditional, and increasingly elaborate, Mexican ceremony that celebrates a girl’s 15th birthday and marks her symbolic passage into womanhood — of her cousin Eileen (Alicia Sixtos). No expense seems to have been spared for this party and all the gaudy teenage trappings of excess are on display, from the stretched Hummer limousine with the stripper pole to the fumbling bump-n-grind dance routines of newly minted teenagers.
Magdalena, clearly impressed and tacitly envious of her cousin’s celebration, is eagerly anticipating and planning her own upcoming quinceañera. Her party, however, will be less extravagant as her preacher father (Jesus Castanos-Chima) has insisted on a more humble and budget-friendly bash to celebrate her 15th birthday. To add insult to injury Magdalena will even be forced to wear her cousin’s hand-me-down dress.
Magdalena’s problems soon grow far more serious as she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant by her boyfriend Herman (J.R. Cruz). Given that she is still (technically) a virgin, Magdalena is especially shocked and dismayed by this news. (It seems that in one of their heavy make out sessions Herman’s sperm leaked onto the top of Magdalena’s thigh, furiously swam upstream, and impregnated her. Sounds ridiculous but it is medically possible.)
Not believing the ‘virgin birth’ explanation, Magdalena’s father kicks her out of the house and she is forced to move in with her great uncle, Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez). Tomas, a truly humble and benevolent man, has also taken in and given a home to Magdalena’s wayward cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia). We learn that Carlos, an unmotivated amateur thug, has been banished by his family not for his petty thievery but for being gay. Less bothered by his sexuality than by his class status, Carlos is immediately attracted to the (obnoxious) yuppie gay couple who have recently moved into a house on the same property as his great uncle, and quickly begins a three-way relationship with the men.
Quietly burdened by their outsider status within their larger family structure Magdalena, Carlos, and Tomas quickly form their own loving and trustful family unit. But however comforting and reassuring their new home environment may be, the world and its inevitable changes are soon laid bare on their front steps: Carlos’ relationship with his neighbors grows complicated; Magdalena’s boyfriend is forced to move away by his concerned mother; and Tomas receives a 30-day eviction notice (courtesy of the gentrifying gay couple) to leave his beloved home.
After a journey of pain, love, despair, and hope, the film ends with the long-awaited, and now bittersweet celebration, of Magdalena’s quinceañera. Intended to be heart warming and uplifting, the main plot lines concerning Magdalena and Carlos are resolved with a banal ambiguity that is both simplistic and emotionally unfulfilling. The characters’ passage from self-indulgent juvenility to knowing maturity (clearly illustrated by the two contrasting quinceañera ceremonies as the film’s bookends) remains too structured to feel earned and, thus, satisfying.
This well-packaged DVD (replete with filmmaker and cast commentary, a behind-the-scenes documentary, a red-carpet featurette, and an extended deleted scene) does little to mask the overriding inadequacies of the film itself. With varying themes of love, death, acceptance, (cultural and personal) intolerance, social gentrification, and racism Quinceañera is awash in important and infinitely interesting material. Unfortunately, Glatzer and Westmoreland, as both co-writers and co-directors, consistently stumble over the scripting and direction of the interweaving storylines and thematic elements. Their awkward and overly instructive visual style betrays the inherent appeal of Quinceañera and reduces the film to an uninspired and reductive melodrama.
Perhaps, the biggest problem with Quinceañera is not that it is an overtly bad film (because it is not), but that it fails to make an impression either way. It fits comfortably, if rather dully, within the independent film tradition of an unassuming multi-cultural coming-of-age story. Strong performances by the three main leads (Rios, Garcia, and Gonzalez) can do little to fix the central fault of a poorly written script that is overloaded with sentimentality. Much like a well-meaning but bewildered child stuck in the awkward years between childhood and adolescence, Quinceañera is too unsure of its self to be assertive and, thus, lacks an identity (good or bad).