Published on CinesceneSweetness and oddness
Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland are gay life partners who had separately and together made gay films, and then because they liked their Echo Park neighborhood so much and got to know it, have now made this, a story about this area of Los Angeles and its mostly Chicano inhabitants -- but also about a white gay couple who own property there and exploit those locals. One of the puzzling elements in this awkward but generally warmhearted and appealing story is that the white gay characters, presumably surrogates of the filmmakers themselves and their friends, range from exploitive to downright despicable.
This isn't as vivid, artful, or coherent, and doesn't develop its characters or scenes in as much depth as Peter Sollett's colorful 2002 charmer about Lower East Side Dominican residents and a young couple's first love, Raising Victor Vargas
. It's not even as memorable or involving as Eric Eason's relatively crude but intense, hardscrabble Manito
(also from 2002). Quinceañera
features the cornball sweetness of an aging great uncle who takes in two family rejects. The old man is Tio Tomás (Chalo Gonzales, who debuted in Pekinpah's Wild Bunch
). He radiates good nature, but despite details of a suicidal youth and a list of occupations, ending in selling champurrado
chocolate drinks from a pushcart, he hasn't much depth as a character. Tomás hosts Carlos (Jesse García), a tough youth driven from the family for being homosexual, and who one of the gay property owners, Tomás' landlords, begins having afternoon sex with on the sly.
Later Carlos is joined by Magdalena (Emily Rios) after she becomes pregnant before her quinceañera
, or fifteenth-birthday celebration, though she has never had full-penetration relations with her boyfriend, Herman (J.R. Cruz). Her stolid storefront preacher father Ernesto (Jesus Castanos) is unforgiving toward both these youths -- his daughter Magdalena and her cousin Carlos. Eventually Herman's mother sends him off to pursue a promising academic career and tells Magdalena to stay away. Carlos' afternoon affair with the gay landlord ends equally cruelly when the older man's partner finds out, and the white gay couple decide to evict poor old Tomás (doubtless to get rid of him and his young charges, particularly the troubling presence of Carlos -- or perhaps just to exploit the real estate better) and this understandably devastates the old man, who's lived there for twenty-eight years. Magdelena tries to find another place for the three of them to live, but with their lack of income (Carlos has a dead-end job in a car wash) and given the local drift toward gentrification, that looks hopeless.
These situations are alternatively weepy and peculiar. A tattooed chulo like Carlos surely isn't a typical lover for a gay white yuppie, though the way the camera dwells on Jesse García's muscles and tattoos suggests the filmmakers think he's as "hot" as the gay landlord characters and their friends keep saying. And virgin births are a considerably greater rarity; though as Magdalena points out to her father, who forgives her upon learning that her hymen is unbroken, "there is a scientific explanation." We're not sure what that is, except that Herman did once explode on Magdalena's leg, and as we're reminded, sperm cells are designed for one primary purpose, to find their way inside a woman's vagina. (Perhaps a useful reminder for gay males.) The idea that this virginal pregnancy may be a "milagro
" (miracle) is a theme that's touched on but not developed.Quinceañera
starts rather limply with the somewhat rhythmless coverage of another girl's fifteenth birthday celebration. The non-professional young people don't deliver their lines with much energy or conviction. But once we get to know Magdalena, Carlos, and Tio Tomás we begin to care about them, and they're specific, as far as it goes. A plot that was more strongly integrated and cut deeper would have added much. Unfortunately the finales and resolutions are as bland and pat as they are heartwarming. And it remains unclear whether the gay white men are meant to be satirized, or their characters are just poorly written (and directed). The film, which was a big hit at Sundance and has had some other festival mileage, intermittently charms and puzzles us without ever quite coming together dramatically or artistically. There are at least three interesting stories here, but unfortunately the filmmakers seem to have liked the neighborhood so much they just couldn't decide what to focus on.