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Culture Crash: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s “Quinceanera”

Culture Crash: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's "Quinceanera"

What does it say about the state of American independent film when a movie like “Quinceanera” wins both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival? Perhaps nothing we didn’t already know. That such an utterly bland movie can inspire enthusiasm from jurors and audiences gets at a deeper malaise in independent cinema. Well-meaning and earnest, “Quinceanera” is almost a parody of the literal-minded Sundance movie: it’s just like something Hollywood would make, except with lower expectations, fewer dollars and no stars.

To heap prizes on a movie like “Quinceanera” is almost unfair, because it invites expectations that the movie cannot possibly meet. An ostensible charmer set in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles, it is partly a study of a Latino community in flux, buffeted by modernity, gentrification, racism from without, and intolerance from within. I say partly because the directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, take that infinitely interesting subject and contaminate it with soapy contrivances and Hollywood didacticism. Into the pot go subplots involving teenage pregnancy, a gay love triangle, eviction, broken families, improvised ones, and a death in the community. Suspicious of quiet, the movie dampens rather than inspires curiosity.

The title refers to the religious ceremony and coming-out party for a girl turning 15. (Or, as a New York Times headline put it, “Not Fat, Not Greek, Not a Wedding, But What a Party.” Seriously, somebody needs to stop them.) The movie begins with Magdalena (Emily Rios) attending her cousin’s Quinceanera, a bash replete with cheesy DJ, dirty dancing, and the obligatory Hummer limo ride. Recalling Scorsese’s fetishistic curiosity for ritual in “Age of Innocence,” the early passages offer a tenuous glimpse into the kind of watchful, immersive experience “Quinceanera” could’ve been.

But it’s a mode dropped almost immediately. When Carlos (Jesse Garcia), Magdalena’s recently outed (and uninvited) cousin, crashes the party, observation gives way to histrionics and never comes back. Before long, Magdalena joins Carlos as a family outcast when it’s found that she’s pregnant. Swearing that she’s never had sex with her boyfriend, she gets kicked out of the house anyway by her preacher father. Like the evicted Carlos, she ends up with her great-great-uncle Tomas (Chalo Gonzales), a kindly old man who sells champorado (a Mexican hot beverage) and presides over his impromptu brood with unquestioning generosity, a superhuman virtuousness that Gonzales oversells like Joss Stone on a high note.

The events set in motion serve nothing so much as an excuse to run through a checklist masquerading as screenplay. Racism? Check. Sexuality? Check. Class? You bet. Generational conflict? Uh huh. Glatzer and Westmoreland invoke the kitchen sink realism of sixties British cinema as an inspiration, but their version is more everything-but. Real-life partners who moved into the Echo Park neighborhood they depict, the directors bravely cast surrogates of themselves (David W. Ross, Jason L. Wood) as gentrifiers who hover–obliviously at first, maliciously as time goes on–above the tumult of their new neighbors. Self-critical though it may be, the portrayal of the couple–predatory, patronizing, insular, and insensitive–borders on distasteful.

For a movie so devoted to questions of identity, “Quinceanera” is conspicuously devoid of one. The ham-handed direction doesn’t help: This is the kind of movie that has a preacher declare, “A girl who hasn’t been with a man can’t have a baby. Period”–and then bludgeons home the already obvious irony with a cut to the Virgin Mary. There’s something here about the collision of cultures–“My Sweet Sixteen” vs. centuries-old rites, guppy bohos vs. working-class families–that could’ve made for compelling ethnography, but it’s a vision drowned by hokum and bathos. Granted, in its stab toward accessibility you can find the germ of a noble goal. The movie’s vision of family, tradition, and forgiveness offers a corrective to the virulent anti-immigrant sentiment that has poisoned the air. But as everyone but the Academy will tell you, good intentions and great art are not the same thing.

The plot point on which the movie turns is a deus ex machina–literally. Suffice to say that it stands as one of the most ridiculous and manipulative twists in recent movies, a desperate attempt to shoehorn the mysterious, even the spiritual, into an incurious and hackneyed melodrama. Its inclusion paints the movie’s failures in even starker relief. For a movie predicated on a miracle amid the mundane, “Quinceanera” offers neither magic nor realism.

[Elbert Ventura is a Reverse Shot staff writer and is also a contributor to the New Republic Online.]

Emily Rios and Jesse Garcia in Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer’s “Quinceanera,” which opens this weekend

Take 2
By Jeannette Catsoulis

“Quinceanera” is essentially a tale of two virgins–one straight and female, the other gay and male–whose parallel deflowerings serve as excellent opportunities to learn and grow together. Which, in movies seeking multiplex approval (and let’s not pretend that “Quinceanera” is anything other than a mainstream movie), means only one thing: learning how to be parents. Forget that Carlos has just lost his car-wash job, or that Magdalena will be a 15-year-old baby having a baby; movies like this never even raise the possibility of abortion or adoption. This is every bit as infuriating as the similarly Hispanic-themed and Sundance-stamped “Real Women Have Curves,” which was all about celebrating the bulge and making “diet” a four-letter word. With their sugary, p.c. messages and gauze-shrouded images, these movies only reinforce immigrant stereotypes and reaffirm that all Latinas have to look forward to is being fat and/or pregnant.

Yet even pregnancy doesn’t stop Magdalena from wearing her white dress; she’s such a good girl she hasn’t even had sex, just an unfortunate thigh-high accident. That little plot detail allows the filmmakers to maintain Magdalena’s purity and turn her virgin birth into a miracle that even Daddy the preacher can get behind. (And by volunteering as the baby’s surrogate father, Carlos can redeem himself in the eyes of his community for the sin of being gay.) Unfortunately, all this ennobling of working-class Hispanics is achieved at the expense of gay white men, brushed off as objectifying narcissists and the callous face of urban gentrification.

That said, “Quinceanera” is that rare American movie where teenage girls actually sound like teenage girls and not world-weary hookers. I’m still puzzled, however, by the directors’ claim to have been inspired by the British kitchen-sink dramas of the Sixties; if Bryan Forbes or Ken Loach had gone anywhere near this movie, Magdalena would be unhappily married to the baby’s father, Carlos would be selling himself on the streets, and there wouldn’t be a virgin in sight.

[Jeannette Catsoulis is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot who has also written for the Independent, DC One Magazine, and is a regular film critic for the New York Times.]

Emily Rios in Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer’s “Quinceanera,” which opens this weekend

Take 3
By Leah Churner

“Quinceanera” narrowly manages to walk the line of sweetness without stumbling into saccharine territory. This is because the trio of misfits at its core, knocked-up Magdalena (Emily Rios), her gay cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), and their oracular uncle Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez), make up in likeability what the story may lack in dimensionality, and the film’s constant comic relief is a welcome antidote to its predilections toward after-school-special melodrama. The film opens on a promising note with a gorgeously choreographed Quinceanera sequence, which captures the universal, emotional magnitude of ceremony in the mind of young girls, but also serves as a split-second exposure of youth currency of the immediate present: text-messaging, pretend-pole dancing, and Reggaeton.

Soon, Magdalena petitions her parents for an identical limo and reception, her waistline starts to swell. She swears she’s a virgin, but her condition is obvious. After an altercation with her parents, she moves to her uncle’s, where her brother has resided since getting kicked out of the house for surfing gay porn on the home computer. Faced with figuring out how in the world she got pregnant, finding a new place to live, and dealing with the fallout of her tarnished reputation at school, Magdalena is stoic and matter-of-fact, and never has one of those tacky “learning to love my baby” moments we’ve come to expect from the teen-mama-drama.

“Quinceanera” bears comparison to Larry Clark‘s “Wassup Rockers,” another comic/heroic look at the lives of young Latino outcasts in Los Angeles. Both movies are heavy on class politics and scenery shots, and both contain a fair amount of fantasy: the pristine fairy tale of “Quinceanera” seems like the feminine counterpart to the breezy, violent adventure concluding “Rockers.” “Quinceanera” is most agreeable as a Manhattan-inspired, unabashedly schmaltzy ode to a locale, as well as a unique document of a ritual that has long flown beneath the radar of mainstream movies and television.

[Leah Churner is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

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