Fifteen Blue

Washington City Paper | August 25, 2006
Quinceañera is a Bible story set in the universe of Hummer limos and gentrification. Old-World values clash against New-World realities in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood, where an extended Mexican-American family struggles with issues such as materialism, teen pregnancy, and homosexuality. There’s little lecturing, though, in co-writers and -directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s uplifting narrative, even as it fundamentally asks, WWJD?

The tolerant Christ figure here is Tio Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez), an elderly street vendor who feeds the hungry and embraces the outcast. He lives with his nephew Carlos (Jesse Garcia), a gang member who has been disowned by his parents and therefore sparks an uproar when he drops by his sister Eileen’s quinceañera, a weddinglike ceremony to mark her 15th birthday. Eileen (Alicia Sixtos), however, gets the royal treatment from the folks: Rather than a spiritual commemoration, Eileen’s day is one lavish party, with her friends cooing over her gorgeous dress, a stylized video remembrance, and a giant limo complete with stripper pole.

The film, which easily flows between Spanish and English, opens with this celebration but then shifts to Eileen’s 14-year-old cousin, Magdalena (Emily Rios), whom later that night is told by her excited mother (Araceli Guzman-Rico) that someone has offered to alter Eileen’s dress for her own upcoming quinceañera. Naturally, Magdalena wants her own dress. And, if not that, at least a limo. But her preacher/security-guard father (Jesus Castanos) doesn’t have the money, and he’s determined to keep the event traditional instead of flashy. Magdalena pouts until she finds out she has a bigger problem—she’s pregnant, despite her insistence that she’s never had sex with her boyfriend, Herman (J.R. Cruz). Her mother wants to support her, but her dad throws her out of the house, leaving her with nowhere to go but Uncle Tio’s couch. He takes her in without question despite already sharing his home with Carlos, who we find out is gay.

Quinceañera concentrates not on the teenagers’ “sins” but rather the good that lies underneath them. While the elders cluck over Magdalena’s pregnancy—Carlos’ sexuality is never really discussed—Tio, except for adding her picture to a backyard shrine where he’s been praying for Carlos, all but ignores it. Gonzalez is the highlight of the film, imbuing an already remarkable character with a pleasant gentleness as Tio tells stories and putters around his rich-toned, lived-in home. He expresses his unconditional love in the simplest terms: “I’m glad you have a friend,” he tells Carlos, who has been involved in three-way trysts with Tio’s new landlords that secretly morph into a relationship with one. His uncle doesn’t know these details, however, even after things turn sour—and a proactive Magdalena finds out not only how her landlords respond to a young Latina but also what available property, all light and clean lines, is now worth in her neighborhood.

Rios and Garcia, too, are understated and natural, though Garcia’s Carlos hides his hurt under tough, silent, unsmiling posturing—Glatzer and Westmoreland are to be commended for completely avoiding the gay stereotype—he slowly becomes comfortable enough to reveal his strong sense of family and love of his new, untraditional clan. Rios’ Magdalena, meanwhile, is a combination of innocent little girl lost—her pregnancy has a medical explanation but is deemed a miracle—and spitfire teen as she at first fights those about to abandon her and then comes to accept that she’s about to grow up, and fast. In a time when 15-year-olds are still kids, Magdalena’s quinceañera ends up being a true, joyous mark on her path to adulthood.

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