The story of two young cousins coping with crisis and change in their Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles, QuinceaÃ±era is most remarkable as the portrait of a place. Echo Park is a neighborhood undergoing the same transition as so many others in Canadian and American cities. The telltale signs ' e.g., cafÃ©s that can be described as 'funky,â?� shops catering to people who believe furniture needs 'accentsâ?� ' indicate an incursion by a social group with different tastes, values and spending power than the communities that were already there. The possibility for conflict arises amid the pressures caused by gentrification, but so does the opportunity for new connections.
Since the newcomers in the Echo Park of QuinceaÃ±era are gay professionals and the residents are working-class Latinos, one such connection is both inevitable and provocative. Ostracized from his family after he's discovered looking at gay websites, Carlos (Jesse Garcia) lives with his elderly uncle and works in a car wash. He becomes involved with the gay yuppie couple who are now his uncle's landlords. They remain alien to Carlos even after he becomes the 'peanut butterâ?� in their sandwich. As Gary (David W. Ross) tells the tattooed cholo, 'You live in a whole other world, don't you?â?�
'No,â?� says Carlos stoically, 'you do.â?�
This is the most remarkable moment in QuinceaÃ±era, partially because it runs counter to the film's eagerness to smooth over ruffles and reassure viewers that everything is gonna be peachy once the healing has begun, a tendency that's hardly rare among American indies that win big at Sundance. Topping critical faves like Half Nelson and In Between Days, QuinceaÃ±era scored the rare coup of winning both the grand jury and audience prizes last January. The film's intelligence, sensitivity and sweetness give it an undeniable appeal, though it's too bad the story of Magdalena (Emily Rios) doesn't have the same charge as that of her cousin Carlos. That said, newcomer Rios contributes one of the year's loveliest performances as a 14-year-old whose plans for her quinceaÃ±era (the traditional Mexican 15th birthday celebration) are fouled up by certain changes in her body. Though she and her boyfriend didn't go all the way, she still got knocked up and it's not easy being a pregnant virgin even if you're Catholic. After she moves in with her uncle and Carlos, the makeshift family weathers more problems.
Filmmakers Richard Glatzer (whose previous career high-water mark was co-creating America's Next Top Model) and Wash Westmoreland conceived the movie after they were asked to shoot a quinceaÃ±era for their own neighbors in Echo Park. They patterned QuinceaÃ±era after the British kitchen-sink dramas of the early '60s, most obviously A Taste of Honey (1961), another tale of a pregnant teen. The resulting piece of sweet-tempered social realism is brought to life by the cast and Echo Park itself. Full of acute observations about the social changes and economic divisions that are present not just within the neighborhood but the cousins' own families, QuinceaÃ±era has far more valuable things to say about Los Angeles than Crash ever did. While it all turns out a little too well to be entirely plausible, Glatzer and Westmoreland's Sundance success will, with any luck, inspire other urban filmmakers to examine the incursions and connections in which they're already involved.
(QuinceaÃ±era opens Friday, Sept. 15 at Regal Winter Park Village 20.)