on August 04, 2006 by Ray Greene
From the limited perspective of one festivalgoer, by day five, 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival was emerging as the Year of Nice. Film after film presents itself as ‘alternative' because of its ethnic or sexual milieu, but when the gender and racial identity markers or the political subtexts are stripped away, the movies themselves have the plot machinery of made-for-cable forgiveness melodramas of the Lifetime Channel and Oxygen Network variety.

Today's case in point for this reviewer was a perfectly serviceable weepie and coming-of-age drama called "Quinceanera." The title derives from a Mexican custom that is a sort of bat mitzvah: When a girl turns 15, she is given a big party, introducing her to the community as eligible for dating. In the hands of co-screenwriters/co-directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, the Quinceanera ritual is a framing device for the story of Magdelena (Emily Rios), a Latina in L.A.'s Echo Park community approaching her 15th birthday with a serious and unexpected problem: Magdalena is pregnant, even though she has never had sex. It's no miracle, just a rare case of heavy petting resulting in insemination without penetration (the Virgin Mary is humorously referenced several times as a sort of patron saint of pregnant virgins).

Rejected by her minister father, Magdalena goes to live with her gay, formerly gangbanging cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), who has also been rejected by his family for his sexual proclivities. Together with their great-granduncle Tomas, Magdalena and Carlos weather loss, rejection and the gentrification of their neighborhood before being accepted back into their families in the orgy of reintegration that is characterizing the endings of too many Sundance narratives this year.

Westmoreland and Glatzer have a modest hit on their hands (executives from one major studio were huddled in the theatre lobby after one Sundance screening, presumably putting a number to their acquisition bid). "Quinceanera" hits all the right emotional buttons, though the acting is weak at times, and the cinematography is grungy and inappropriate to the ultimately rather airy subject matter. But it's interesting to note that, like such other Sundance 2006 titles as "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," "Sherrybaby" and "Stephanie Daley," this film gives us characters in socially unique situations and then shows us how all they really want is to be accepted just like everybody else.

At the risk of raising the tired annual argument about Sundance's relevance, it's interesting to note that with edgier and more challenging films like "Brokeback Mountain" and "Capote" playing at multiplexes across the nation, Sundance is looking far more conservative than the mainstream cinemas it has done so much over the years to influence. This is of course a symbol of this festival's incredible success. So the question is: Is the presence of so many relatively unambitious films that fetishize the normal in the guise of the alternative a symbol of something resembling failure? In the incestuous nexus between Sundance and mainstream Hollywood, influence, it would seem, may be flowing both ways. Starring Emily Rios, Jesse Garcia and Chalo Gonzalez. Directed and written by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer. Produced by Anne Clements. A Sony Pictures Classics releasse. Drama. Rated R for language, some sexual content and drug use. Running time: 90 min

Tags: Emily Rios, Jesse Garcia and Chalo Gonzalez, Directed and written by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, Produced by Anne Clements, Sony, Drama

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