This teen drama, in Spanish, but mostly English, keenly understands the "racial, sexual, and class tensions" of L.A.'s transitioning Echo Park.
This neighborhood, in Quinceanera, has undergone gentrification with racial distinction emerging from increased real estate prices, gays and artists having displaced many of the lower-class residents.
Writing and directing partners Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland smoothly fashion a Hispanic soap opera that segues between Spanish and English and could be considered a bit contrived. Yet, it's a feel-good picture whose emotional payoff is earned in its uncondescending view of love.
The title refers to the rite of passage that happens to a Mexican-American girl when reaching the age of 15. Magdalena, the comely Emily Rios, dreams of that upcoming day, with her boyfriend, dress and Hummer Limo that will make the day unforgettable. The film is nicely bookended by the elaborate event, the first being one for Magdalena's cousin (Alicia Sixtos).
The daughter of a family who runs a storefront church in Echo Park will become "pregnant" by boyfriend Herman (J.R. Cruz) and be ostracized by her religious-minded father (Jesus Castanos-Chima). Her new refuge is with great-great uncle Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez of "The Wild Bunch"). Tomas has already taken in her "tough cholo" of a cousin, Carlos (Jesse Garcia), who happens to be a drug-user, a thief, and gay.
Glatzer and Westmoreland wisely compact this slice-of-life piece with an authentic sense of the community, where it's been, and cultural trends. The plot is complicated by Tomas' new upper-class landlords (David W. Ross and Jason L. Wood) who are involved with the wayward Carlos.
Perhaps the story isn't quite as fluent as the way it handles issues and beliefs, from the religious to the economic and social, in an ungratuitous way. Shot in 18 days, Quinceanera unfolds with a kind of poetic, documentary-like realism, hardly with much artistic aspirations. The cast exudes a naturalism, humor that is unexpected, and the emotion has a restraint in a refreshing off-handed manner.
Some of those whose are like Carlos may have a slighted reaction while observing it all. But, there's truth in the interactions as the mood shifts in underlying the struggles of Magdalena and Carlos (both Rios and Garcia were raised as Jehovah's Witness). Rios endows Magdalena with a local, tough East L.A. personality and Garcia delivers the most textured characterization, especially when it concerns the understated, sagely benevolent character of the venerable veteran, Gonzalez.
Formulated with a teenage energy and improvisation, Quinceanera enlightens personalities and situations that would make Magdalena's age group the ideal audience with Reggaeton music and freak dancing. Though some trimming could have been made to make the rating suit the target group, early 21st Century Echo Park resonates with the same blossoming and detachment felt even before the Virgin Mary.