The Essential Guide
Several cultures honor girls when they reach an age considered to be the threshold of maturity. Jews have their Bat Mitzvah when a girl turns 13; Americans have their sweet 16; Latinos choose 15 for their Quinceanera celebrations, a practice that dates back to Aztec civilizations. They can be majestic productions with all the costs attendant on spectacular proportions; they may be highly planned and involve a "court" of the honoree's peers-- including boys who willingly take nothing more than supportive positions. When they go right, they're joyous occasions and often belie the modest economic levels they spring from. Clearly, they are events of a lifetime for all involved.
Magdalena (Emily Rios) is approaching that age and she's got the added advantage (or burden) that her father is the local religious figure who runs the ceremonial part of the affairs in this Echo Park district of Los Angeles. During a mostly successful Quinceanera for Eileen (gorgeous Alicia Sixtos), a classmate who precedes Magdalena to the magic age, we meet the key players in her life in her Mexican-American community, including, notably, her boyfriend. What with the fitting of her special dress, her participation in the Quinceanera court, and a festive ride in a Hummer Limo, it's a full dress rehearsal for her own day of honor, which is just a few months away.
The dance that follows Eileen's ceremony goes well until her tough cholo brother Carlos (Jesse Garcia) shows up, defying his ostracism because of his known troublemaking and, possibly, because of his sexual preferences. Ejected from the dancehall in no uncertain terms, he's taken in by his genial great-great uncle Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez).
Into this diverse portrait of a community comes the tragedy of Magdalena becoming pregnant during a sexual encounter with her boyfriend which she swears didn't include penetration. Claiming impossibility, her condition becomes evident to the women, none of whom are buying the immaculate conception bit. Her father throws her out of the house and, suddenly, great-great uncle Carlos has another boarder in his quaint quarters.
Through a sub-plot in which Carlos has a liaison with an affluent white gay couple (David W. Ross and Jason L. Wood), and a deeper tryst with the former) Carlos shows little of his rebellious side and no gang affiliations. While the gay triangle turns sour, and the out-of-wedlock pregnancy is proven through tests to be as Magdalena has claimed, brother and sister develop a close loyalty.
This is a story created by two white gringo filmmakers, co-writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (one from Queens; the other from Leeds, England) who, in a style of poetic realism take us in unexpected directions with admirably unexaggerated performances. Their screenplay is as carefully crafted as it is cleanly structured. Most of all, Emily Rios cuts a clear path to our hearts in exemplifying their approach with an unstrained, unpretentious performance that is nothing if not natural and deceptively simple. It's also a keenly observed representation of girls holding their own within their mileau.
I left the theatre with different feelings than I anticipated upon entering it. So much for expectations derived from poster art and other publicity. It may be ill-advised to admit that by the last frame, tears filled my eyes. To fulfill my obligation to avoid spoilers, however, I just won't say why. I will divulge that it had a lot to do with the subtle way the film takes you into this Quinceanera-candidate's life and fills you with such caring and concern. I didn't just see a movie--almost without realizing it, I had an experience.