Park Life

Quinceañera. Jesus Castanos, Araceli Guzman-Rico, and Emily Rios star in a film written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland.

Reviewed by D.J. Palladino

On one level, this is merely a film about a neighborhood. A prizewinner at Sundance, and with the kind of topic you would knee-jerk expect to win there, it tells the story of a Mexican-American 14-year-old pregnant girl, her tough-looking older gay cousin, and their kindly, aging uncle, the 13th child from a Jalisco family of 22. They all come from homes that partake of rich cultural roots, yet defy easy stereotypes, which lends the gracefully told story the added fillip of being a film about twice marginalized people whose desires seem reasonable yet never quite work out. In other words, it has both the odd and the universal tug, too. If you really want to pay attention, there is a further trafficking in religious symbolisms: a “virgin birth,” a vision of true sanctity and martyrdom and resurrection, to boot. It’s hard not to think of it as latter-day Steinbeck.

But the chief pleasures of the film hang from its Echo Park setting. Not long ago it was gangland, but Echo Parque today is the wave of gentrification moving up Sunset Boulevard from Silver Lake. It still has the vestiges of a barrio, but it also has snazzy art galleries, rock clubs, and upwardly mobile types moving into beautiful old homes set in a hillside that looks down on downtown L.A., with its towering swank hotels and Frank Gehry concert halls. In a way, Echo Park could be the long-overdue flowering place of authentic culture in the city of angels. The filmmakers, who are Anglos, manage to capture not only the real feel of the ethnic neighborhood, but also the lives of a white gay community moving in (not without bad misunderstandings), the community web formed by an old man selling champaduras, and the rougher world of junior high girl society.

What I like best about Quinceañera, however, is the imagery. Innocence riding in a Hummer limousine opens and closes this story, a backyard wine bottle shrine and the formal world of the quinceañera party, a coming out, dissolving naturally into hip-hop en Español. Though charming, Quinceañera has teeth, and a vision of the streets that includes both graffiti and rose gardens, too.

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