"Quinceañera" is one of those "little" movies that often gets extra credit with critics and audiences for being modest and humanly scaled. At Sundance this year it won both the dramatic grand jury prize and the audience award, and although that overhyped festival's imprimatur is often the kiss of death, a few genuinely good movies do occasionally walk off with the honors.
But one must always adjust for inflation. "Little Miss Sunshine," another Sundance winner, is very enjoyable but not all that great. And "Quinceañera," while certainly heartfelt and well-observed, is best approached with lowered expectations, too.
It's about Magdalena (Emily Rios), a 14-year-old Mexican-American whose family runs a storefront church in Echo Park, Los Angeles. As she fast approaches her "Quinceañera" – the ritual celebration of her 15th birthday – she discovers she is pregnant. Thrown out of her home by her father, she moves in with her great-great uncle Tomás (Chalo Gonzalez), who is already putting up Magdalena's unruly brother Carlos (Jesse Garcia). The relationship between these three is the emotional core of the movie.
When he is at home with Magdalena and Carlos, puttering around his ramshackle apartment crammed with relics and gewgaws, Tomás is so pacific that he seems almost saintly. Without ever having had children of his own, he understands instinctively how to calm the kids down. Tomás is worldly wise without being a bore, and Gonzalez, who once worked with director Sam Peckinpah, gives him an innate grace that can't be faked.
Magdalena is precariously balanced between girlhood and womanhood; she is wise enough to know about men but is still an innocent in many ways. She can't even understand how she got pregnant by her boyfriend Herman (J.R. Cruz) and for a time believes she experienced a form of immaculate conception.
Carlos is constantly taunting her, but it's not a vicious game he is playing. He just wants her to know he's the boss. (They both know he isn't.) His hair-trigger temper has made him a family outcast and, at least in the eyes of his father, so has his homosexuality.
Carlos doesn't seem particularly troubled by being gay in the macho Latino culture, and he doesn't seethe over the racial divide in his increasingly gentrified neighborhood. When an upscale white male couple next door – they are Tomás's landlords – invite him to a party, he accepts knowing full well he may be the only Mexican-American there.
The film's writer-directors, Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, earlier made an acclaimed feature about the gay porn world, "The Fluffer," and Westmoreland for a time actually made adult films. Glatzer is co-creator of TV's "America's Top Model." These backgrounds may partially explain why "Quinceañera" is receiving so much attention, but a larger reason is the matter-of-fact way they present sexually and racially charged material.
Despite much of the turmoil depicted, there is a sweetness to parts of this film that is reminiscent of the 1961 British movie "A Taste of Honey," an acknowledged influence on the filmmakers. In that movie, Rita Tushingham played a girl who becomes pregnant by a sailor and is cared for by a homosexual friend.
But Emily Rios does not have the ugly ducking waifishness of Tushingham. Like Chalo Gonzalez, Rios is luminously, unaffectedly, beautiful. The filmmakers took a chance on her – she is almost entirely without dramatic experience – and they were right to do so.
I wish "Quinceañera" had gone much deeper into the emotional divide separating Magdalena's family. The film coasts too smoothly over its racial, sexual, and religious divides. But its amateurishness, which at times seems cultivated, more often seems inspired. Grade: B+
• Rated R for language, some sexual content, and drug use.