Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Quinceañera - Movie Review

Quinceañera 2006

Since the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have realized one of the great potentials of the medium – porn. Hot, sweaty, cum-as-you-are, balls to the wall pornography. For decades, rumors have swirled along the back alleys of Hollywood about the existence of vintage “smokers” featuring up and coming young starlets from Joan Crawford to Marilyn Monroe. Not to be outdone, top A-list directors were rumored to have participated behind the camera as smut auteurs. Just imagine the fabulous tracking shots Alfred Hitchcock could have helmed in a porn remake of "The Man Who Blew Too Many", or John Ford gracing the screen with his famed compostion skills in a raunchier "How Wet Was Her Valley". And certainly as the recent “The Notorious Bettie Page” showed us, the netherworld of smut and the glamorous world of celebrity are often co-mingled.

And what has this to do with the latest Grand Jury Prize winner to come from the prestigious Sundance Film Festival? Well, patience dear readers and we will inform you. “Quinceañera” not only charmed the Sundance Jury, but also walked away with the Audience Award for its quietly emotional examination of young Latinos living in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. It features two lovely lead turns by young unknowns and one handsome supporting turn from a veteran character actor. It is also written and directed by a pair of veteran Gay Porn directors and off-screen gay couple, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland.

And we couldn’t be happier for them. Well, within reason. As those of you not gifted in the Castilian tongue might not know, a “Quinceañera” is the festive Hispanic celebration of a young girl reaching her fifteenth birthday. A right of passage to womanhood not unlike a Bat Mitzvah and Debutante Ball all rolled up into one. But with better food and less bulimia. And while other Spanish speaking countries have their variations or not, it is famously a Mexican American tradition.

We are introduced to fourteen year old Magdalena, played by the lovingly real Emily Rios as she helps celebrate her cousin’s Quinceañera with her extended family and friends. The party is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of her ostracized cousin, Carlos portrayed winningly by Jesse Garcia. Ay Chihuahua! What a little Papi, this Cholo turns out to be! The reason for his banishment, we quickly realize is that Carlos has committed the unpardonable within the macho Hispanic world – he is gay.

Meanwhile, back at el Rancho, Magdalena has problems of her own. Her teenage passion for on / off boyfriend, Herman has seemingly resulted in a quite unplanned for pregnancy. And being the daughter of a preacher, this hardly sits well once the gato is out of the bag. Before the mierda can fully hit the fan, she runs to the safe embrace of her great-great-uncle, Tio Tomas played with a wonderful authenticity by veteran character actor Chalo González. She is not the only one. For Tio Tomas has also taken in the unwanted Carlos.

And while this could easily have become a Mexican American version of “Three’s Company” – it veers off into the tried and true formula of many an Independent Flick. A coming of age film that demonstrates the power of love to overcome obstacles. In this case, mainly one of intolerance.

As the film unspools, we had a few reservations. The romance angle between Magdalena and Herman plays uncomfortably like a slightly saucier “Afterschool Special” episode on the dangers of premarital dalliances. And the surprise turn of events that define her pregnancy is better suited to an amateur theological debate. (Thankfully, they wrap that painfully loose thread up fairly quickly if not too believably.)

The subplot of Carlos becoming embroiled in a ménage a trois with the A-list gays who are also this thrown together family’s landlords is a tad Gay Porn lite. (All they were missing were two hot mechanics arriving to fix the car or a muscle bound hitchhiker getting lost on his way to West Hollywood.) And then something wonderful happens. (No, the hitchhiker doesn’t arrive – get your filthy minds out of the gutter!) The film begins to focus on the unashamedly loving relationship between the elderly Tio Tomas and his wayward boarders.

Chalo González has been working in films for near forty years, in fine company too with the legendary Sam Peckinpah. His performance as Tio Tomas is never heavy handed or soppingly emotional. It rings true by being played lightly. The run down paradise he has created over the years in a small cottage behind the master house reflects a kind of Magical Realism to be found in many Spanish novels. A shrine filled with bits of pottery, colored glass, the ubiquitous Madonna iconography and treasured photographs of his young charges is quite charming. When he gazes at the two troubles youngsters under his care, it is one of love and at least an attempt to understand their situations. Which is far more than their real parents have ever attempted. We learn in some lovely domestic vignettes, that Tio Tomas is no stranger to tough times. And it is this quality that not only justifies his understanding demeanor but emerges as completely believable and entrancing.

As Magdalena, the young Emily Rios does a fine job of appearing to be real teenager. One without guile or pretense. In many ways this is her story, and she helps center the film with a realism that most actresses would kill for.

And as the humpy young gay car wash attendee (Nice - well did you expect him to be a stockbroker?), Jesse Garcia surprised us by rising to the occasion. (Again with the filthy minds. You should be ashamed of yourselves!) For despite his being the elder cousin, his character is perhaps the most naïve of the duo. His hopeless romance with one of the landlords turns quite sour, and forces a drastic change in the lives of the trio. When tragedy strikes, it is Carlos who must end up holding the family together while finally admitting his own vulnerability. It is a lovely performance for this young actor, made even lovelier by his smoldering sexuality. (There. Now you can let loose with the drooling and panting.)

We found ourselves surprisingly moved by this quiet little flick, and understand how it took both honors at Sundance. But we would be remiss in our duties if we didn’t digress for a moment and admit more than little disappointment. For while the direction is uniformly fine, employing a blessedly spare roving camera and tight handheld work. The script remains far too thin and reliant on a particular brand of homespun charm that it fails to reach throughout the first half.

It is up to the non-professional skills of Emily Rios and Jesse Garcia to help ground the flick, and thankfully they are up to the task. The various peripheral characters are handled in a believable fashion – particularly with the nice low key banter between the young teenage girls – but never quite ignite our interest. And if we are to truly care for the plight of the abandoned cousins, we must be able to rejoice in their eventual survival. A survival that is wholly dependent on the reconciliation with their extended families.

The film works visually, in a very polished low budget way. The closing scene is certainly not unexpected, but handled very well. It is a tribute to the young leads and the grace and charm of the old veteran Chalo González, that we can recommend this film. It creeps up on you and leaves a mark. Much like the director duos more infamous Bluer works behind the camera. And hey, if this film isn’t their ticket to the mainstream – at least they know how to film a good gang rape on top of a pool table. Bless you all!

Written & Directed by Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland

Emily Rios as Magdalena
Jesse Garcia as Carlos
Chalo González as Tio Tomas
J.R. Cruz as Herman
Alicia Sixtos as Eileen
Johnny Chavez as Uncle Walter
Carmen Aguirre as Aunt Silvia
Araceli Guzman-Rico as Maria
Jesus Castanos as Ernesto
David W. Ross as Gary
Jason L. Wood as James
Blanca Reyes as Maria’s Mother
Teresa Michelle Ruiz as Herman’s Mother

Cinematography by Eric Steelberg
Film Editing by Robin Katz & Clay Zimmerman
Costume Design by Jessica Flaherty
Production Design by Denise Hudson & Jonah Markowitz
Set Decoration by Laura Paddock
Original Music by Victor Bock, J. Peter Robinson & Micko Westmoreland


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