Quinceañera (review)

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Rites of Passive

It’s such a warm and pleasant and human and humanist little film that it seems a tad rude to suggest that Quinceañera isn’t all it needs to be in order to be a film worthy of wholehearted praise and recommendation. The pieces are all in place, perhaps, but the glue connecting them is a bit thin — we can see the shape of the puzzle but some bits just don’t cohere. Or maybe the finished piece got so overshellacked out of fear of not being neat and tidy and finished off that the final result got muddy and dimmed. It’s often hard to determine just why a sorta-okay, not-so-bad, I-kinda-liked-it film doesn’t make you want to shout from the rooftops that Everyone! Must! See! This! Which is what I’d like to do for Quinceañera, but I just can’t.
I want to love this movie. It is, after all, about a teenage girl who’s that honest-to-god cinematic rarity: real person. There’s nothing stereotypical or cartoonish about 14-year-old Magdalena (Emily Rios) — oh, sure, she loves her iPod and spends afterschool afternoons shopping with her girlfriends, but she’s a good kid, and when she accidentally gets pregnant, well, it’s not that she’s a slut or a bad girl; she has one boyfriend, who seems like a really nice boy himself, and they didn’t even Go All The Way, but instead got caught in a statistical anomaly regarding the fierce tenacity of human sperm. (If there’s one group of people to whom I might wholeheartedly recommend Quinceañera, it would be teenaged girls. There’s no graphic — or even not-graphic — sex for parents to worry about, but it does impart a few hard-earned lessons about being careful whom you get naked with, ones that don’t have to do with the typical movie bugaboos of pregnancy or disease but the far greater dangers to our hearts and emotions — that kind of sex ed is as rare onscreen as it is in school.)

So that’s a big plus for this festival favorite, from filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (who made the gay indie comedy The Fluffer in 2001): real folks, and not just Magdalena. When her preacher dad gets the news about her being in the family way, he kicks her out, and she goes to live with her uncle, Tomas (Chalo González), who is a lovely figure of unconditional love and tolerance and warmth and cookies and all those good things, and her cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), who is not bachelor Tomas’s son but yet another family reject he has taken in. Carlos is gay, and out of the closet (and, as a tough street kid, he’s about as far from gay stereotypes as movies get). And the three of them create a really nice little family together, dealing with one another’s oddities, sniping at each other — especially the youngests — as people do but remaining supportive.

But “nice” really is the word that pops to mind as the best descriptor of Quinceañera: it’s too nice. It doesn’t take risks; it doesn’t push boundaries; it refuses to be aggressive. And I don’t mean “mean and angry” aggression: I mean there’s a passion that’s lacking in what is a story about learning about passion of all kinds — not just sexual but in simply being a feeling person. For a story about rites of passage — not just first sex and first pregnancy but also the elaborate ceremony Magdalena is supposed to be preparing her, her quinceañera, a celebration of her fifteenth birthday, which, we see, is like a combination sweet-sixteen and Christian confirmation, and it comes with as much pomp and circumstance as a wedding — there is nothing that feels momentous or monumental.

It’s all very pleasant and won’t ruffle any feathers. Which is too bad. This is a movie that should make someone angry, move someone to tears, make us feel something more than, Gee, wasn’t that nice.

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