DVD Review: Quinceanera

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Quinceanera, a small independent film that took several prizes at Sundance, captured a lot of hearts when it was released last year. It’s the story of a girl coming of age in a Los Angeles’ Mexican-American Echo Park neighborhood, a community that observes the tradition of Quinceanera– an elaborately staged celebration marking a Latina girl’s debut into womenhood on her fifteenth birthday. But Magdalena’s (Emily Rios) party isn‘t the affair a Quinceanera‘s supposed to be. She‘s a serious student with potential, and she‘s got a very nice and dedicated boyfriend and, although she swears she’s a virgin (and that later is proven to be true) is pregnant– not a good thing in her traditional Mexican-American family. When her father, a part time preacher in an Hispanic storefront church, dismisses her from the family and sends her packing, she goes to live with her aging grandfather and a cousin who’s got issues– he’s in a gang, and he’s secretly gay, and he’s sexually involved with (actually, exploited by) two gay anglos who‘ve bought a house in the gentrifying neighborhood. This is an engaging story with great characters. It addresses all sorts of human issues– relationships, social behavior, social aspirations and values, gentrification and the intermixing of populations. It‘s well-rounded, well-balanced, well-told.

What’s extra special about the DVD is the commentary provided by co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who happen to be a gay couple who co-wrote the film when they moved to Echo Park and were asked to be videographers at their neighbors’ daughter’s Quinceañera. They were ‘dazzled’ by the beautiful rituals and dancing at the celebratory party, which very coyly, almost ironically mimics a marriage ceremony. Their commentary is entertaining and informative, an excellent backgrounder about how the film came to be and the difficulties of shooting in Echo Park.

We also get nice introductions to a very appealing cast. The lovely Emily Rios, as it turns out, was raised by Jehovah’s Witnesses and felt that her film Quinceanera substituted for the real one which she was denied by her strict and religious family. The grandfather is played by 81-year-old Chalo Gonzalez, an actor who played extras and bit parts for most of his career– then had to relinquish his SAG card to star in this non-union film. He‘s superb as Tio Tomas, who‘s wise and kind and a sustaining force in Magdalena‘s troubled life.

Echo Park is a colorful character in the film. Glatzer and Westmoreland, often using a hand held camera, do a wonderful job of capturing the life of the community.

“Quinceañera” is a bilingual film, with English/Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 the original soundtrack, and options in Portuguese and Spanish 5.1. Subtitles are provided when Spanish is spoken. Additional subtitle options are English (CC), French, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Jennifer Merin

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