There's a small, important scene midway through Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's drama Quinceanera when a white woman stands in front of a Los Angeles street vendor and says to her friend, "Swear to God, these are the best tamales in Echo Park," while a Latino woman passes behind the vendor into a building. The tamale comment is innocuous enough, but the white woman's superficial observation lingers like an insult; the film is much more concerned with the woman who left the frame. Like the arresting moment in Y Tu Mama Tambien when the camera wanders into the kitchen of a roadside restaurant, the filmmakers sidestep trite and traditional cultural observations to explore instead the significance of behind-the-scenes moments. Quinceanera, whose title is named for the Latina 15th-birthday celebration, is a low-key film whose realistic depiction of typically unobserved moments makes it superior to most family dramas.
After an introductory sequence that wittily examines the communal importance of a quinceanera, the film focuses on 14-year old Magdalena (Emily Rios), who moves in with her great-granduncle Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez) and her gay cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia) after fighting with her parents about her sudden pregnancy. The Echo Park neighborhood where Tomas, Carlos, and Magdalena live is in flux, represented by "Accent Elimination" posters, overheard real-estate chatter, and a brace of new, non-Latino neighbors. Carlos' infatuation with English upstairs neighbor Gary inadvertently hastens the gradual gentrification of the neighborhood while forcing the characters to re-evaluate their socio-economic priorities.
The emerging bond between Carlos and Magdalena grounds the film, but many supporting performances are marvels of understatement and kindness; Gonzalez is a warm, wry standout as contented, old Uncle Tomas. Underneath their casual bickering and squabbling about each other's limited prospects, Magdalena's and Carlos' affection for each other grows as their decisions move them further toward the margins of society.
Within indie film culture, Carlos' and Magdalena's cautious support of each other is somewhat remarkable. Unlike the family crises in Noah Baumbach's shrill, heartless The Squid and the Whale, Quinceanera's embattled, makeshift family draws from reserves of hope and kindness to solve its problems instead of wallowing in self-pity or lashing out in self-serving anger. Tomas' tacit recognition of Carlos' homosexuality ("I'm glad you have a special friend") and Carlos' decision to help Magdalena raise her child are two examples of compassion and understanding seldom seen in most family dramas.
Quinceanera is also unusual in its attention to microcultures, possessions, and places. Glatzer and Westmoreland capture the whirlwind of unfinished sentences and exclamations that comprise teenage girl-talk, and Magdalena's cell phone and her desire for a Hummer limo on her own quinceanera take on talismanic importance. One of the biggest shocks in the film occurs when Magdalena sees the bare apartment she, Carlos, and Tomas may have to move into; the contrast with Tomas' overdecorated, photo-laden dwelling, with its careful, crafted atmosphere of tradition and fellowship, is shocking and tragic.
Sweet, humane characters that exist and endure in recognizable places are still too rare in the movies. It is pleasant to see a film like Quinceanera embrace these virtues without irony or condescension.