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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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read Merin's recent articles below. For her complete archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).