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At The Movies: Quinceanera:

It’s the rare film these days that doesn’t feel like an ego project (indie) or one derivative joke after the next (mainstream summer comedies). It is the rare film that takes its audience into a different world and is so captivating and involving it a shame it ever has to come to an end.

For we gringos, we exist in a parallel world here in Los Angeles amid Latino culture. They wash our cars, they sell us their “rockin’ tamales.” They attend our inner-city schools and have been, of late, the topic of heated discussion on conservative talk radio (that, at times, sounds a little Hitler-esque if you ask me). But this isn’t a story about immigration, illegal or otherwise. This is a story about the fragility of human connections. And the meaning of the word family.

The talented Emily Rios plays Magdalena on the eve of her Quinceanera, which is a Mexican girl’s coming-of-age celebration that passes her into womanhood. But what is the Quinceanera really? Not unlike a Jewish Bat Mitzvah where the parents’ economic status and the child’s high demand are put on display. Does it really have to do with the passage into adulthood? Not really, not anymore.

The daughter of a preacher, Magdalena isn’t allowed to want what the other girls have, like the brand new dress or the Hummer limo. She is to wear her cousin’s fancy dress and be as modest as possible for this spiritual journey. As if. Magdalena, like her friends and cousin, is more than anything else, a teenager. She spends her time heavy petting with her boyfriend, taking pics with her cell phone, listening to music and gabbing with her girlfriends. It comes as a huge surprise to her that one make out session with her beau landed her in a pickle – a miraculous pickle but a pickle nonetheless: a pregnant virgin.

When her preacher father finds out she’s knocked up he can’t even look at her. Confused but level-headed Magdalena packs her bag and heads off to her uncle Tio’s house (The Wild Bunch’s Chalo Gonzalez). Tio, it turns out, has already taken in another outcast, Carlos (the wonderful Jesse Garcia), a classic Cholo gang-banger who was tossed out for being, of all things, gay.

This is where the gringo world comes into play. Anyone who has lived here in LA for a while knows that Echo Park is slowly being taken over by homebuyers who can’t afford Los Feliz or Silverlake. Tio rents the back house from an upwardly mobile gay couple that has taken a shine to Carlos.

When the gay couple is tired of playing with Carlos they kick out Tio and his two orphaned houseguests. Magdalena, Carlos and Tio now have nowhere to live – and good luck finding a place to rent in the new Echo Park, where guest houses are $1600 a month.

Quinceanera is a layered, involving little story that manages to walk that obvious line of the miraculous (what a modern day Virgin Mary might look like) and the reality of a young girl that is learning, all too quickly, what growing up is really like. Indeed, she is becoming a woman but the ceremony is more an afterthought than anything else.

Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, Quinceanera breaks stereotypes on all levels – the Latina who prefers the scientific explanation for her pregnancy, the gay couple who are anything but noble and kind (why do gay characters almost always have to be so squeaky clean?) and the Cholo tough guy who underneath it all is just a big, sweet softie.

Finally, family is sometimes made and sometimes built. You don’t know what that means until you see who’s still standing when everything falls apart. Magdalena found her family for better or worse. The little family she will build with Carlos, as honorable a chap as Joseph ever was, will be built on a different kind of faith. From the ground up. Wherever they end up calling home.

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