Shot in Echo Park, which has seen substantial change since the days of Alison Anders’s Mi Vida Loca, Quinceañera is a mélange of dramatic episodes in the lives of three outsiders from the same Mexican-American family. Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, perhaps guilting from the gentrification of the once predominantly Latin neighborhood they call home, insert themselves into the film by way of a gay couple, Gary (David W. Ross) and James (Jason L. Wood), who come to lust after a young, car-washing cholo, Carlos (Jesse Garcia), who lives with his aging uncle in a house adjacent to their property. The directors acknowledge a familiar lechery rarely seen on screen and hardly ever taken to task: the spectacle of white gay males thrilling in the objectification of the Latino male.
The directors avoid the leeringness of the Larry Clark teen-sexploitation, and in some of the film’s more tender scenes they use what the audience doesn’t know—that Carlos was apparently thrown out of his home because his family found out he liked men—to show-up the guys that would reduce him to a sex object. Carlos is a person who exists but is rarely seen in the movies. Because of his race, class, age, and lack of sexual experience, the boy is out of place in Gary and James’s world, which he doesn’t really care to belong to anyway. There’s a sense here that Carlos would have an easier time of it if he played a different, “whiter” game (pull up the socks and wear more form-fitting clothes—in short, look like the Latino male his lovers try to set him up with during their housewarming), but there’s also a sense that he’d rather risk heartache than sell out his sense of self.
In one scene, the subject of a dinner party hosted by James and Gary becomes the size of Carlos’s penis: eight inches uncut, James says. Gary doesn’t participate in the dehumanizing chatter because he’s fallen for Carlos after a few secret trysts. The theme practically flashes on the screen: get to know a papi chulo intimately and lovingly and you’ll probably have a hard time calling him a papi chulo. These types of crass gay men exist, and this sort of ridicule is common, but these cartoon gays deserve the complexity of the film’s sanctified non-white characters. Carlos is allowed a credible naughty side (he plays the innocent in an early scene, consciously exploiting Gary and James’s interest in him for his sexual gratification), but Gary and James are scarcely deep. Gary and Carlos may not be right for each other, but if Gary is so angelic, boy-band beautiful, and ostensibly above James’s brand of cattiness, why is he even with him? At the very least, why doesn’t he condemn James’s decision to banish Carlos and his family from their home?
In at least one respect, Glatzer and Westmoreland are Clark’s kindred spirits: as in Wassup Rockers, part of their project to humanize their Latino characters is making fools of Caucasians. You get a sense Quinceañera would be close to faultless had the directors done away with Gary and James altogether and, later, a lesbian couple who allows Carlos and his cousin to move into their refurnished, $1600-a-month apartment simply out of the goodness of their heart. In Wassup Rockers, white people do the damndest things, and in Quinceañera they seem to be apologizing for it.
Better are a series of good scenes that trace the pressures that often interfere with a Latina girl’s ritualized coming-of-age (not least of which is the shame of having to fit into a cousin’s taken-out, hand-me-down dress) and the horror of watching a mother use her daughter’s quinceañera as an occasion to flaunt her family’s privilege—like Carmella showing off her new car to all her friends during the first episode of the fifth season of The Sopranos. It’s clear that Glatzer and Westmoreland have witnessed a few of the titular ceremonies, and while the film benefits from such first-hand observation, there’s a sense of outsider-looking-in reticence to the proceedings. The opening quinceañera is scored and credit-fonted as to suggest what Anne Hathaway’s Sweet Sixteen might have looked like, but the filmmakers seem hesitant to pass judgment for what appears to be a Latin family’s pretense to whiteness.
You must look past the directors’ guilt complexes to recognize the sweetly observed portrait of a Latino community ousting its undesirables. Intercut with Carlos trying to find his sea legs are the pressures encountered by his aging uncle Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez) and cousin Magdalena (Emily Rios), who learns she’s pregnant even though she’s a virgin. There’s a scientific explanation—her boyfriend Herman (J.R. Cruz) ejaculated on her leg and his resilient sperm somehow got inside—but the girl’s father, a priest, isn’t having any of it. She leaves the house and goes to live with the ostensibly gay uncle Tomas, who took Carlos in when he was banished from his home (the film begins with him crashing and being violently excluded from his sister’s quinceañera).
Glatzer and Westmoreland have evolved as thinkers and filmmakers since The Fluffer, their ridiculous fantasy about a cute boy who gets to go to town on his favorite porn star’s cock. It’s a little surprising to read about the directors’ allegiance to kitchen-sink dramas, because Quinceañera is too jejune and precious in spots to ever earn comparisons to the films of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, but there’s a lyricism to the film’s carefree swaths of incident from the lives of its three main characters, and Rios and Garcia achieve an intimate chemistry rarely seen on film. With minimal fuss and Afterschool Special moralizing, Glatzer and Westmoreland express this idea of Tomas, Magdalena, and Carlos as a wandering alternative family trying to eek out a living in spite of the community that doesn’t want them. Like them, the film is a compromised but humane vision.