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There Goes the Neighborhood

L.A. gentrifiers pay tribute to a community under siege.

A winning tale of sex, real estate and more or less immaculate conception, QuinceaƱera, as you might expect from a white-made drama about Latino life in Echo Park, threatens to be all about a pregnant teenager and a prodigal cholo in the hood. Yet this saucy, rowdy, heartfelt and terribly sweet movie -- a popular item at Sundance this year, where it won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for dramatic feature -- edges as close to a complex view from within as can be hoped for from a couple of gay boys who moved into the neighborhood, got an invite from the neighbors to photograph their daughter's coming-of-age ceremony and saw the kernel of a movie.

Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, Quinceañera is, a trifle oddly, intended as a tribute to 1960s English kitchen-sink drama, particularly to Tony Richardson's 1961 A Taste of Honey, whose plot it freely plunders. But Glatzer and Westmoreland, a couple whose contributions to queer cinema lean toward warmhearted shlock (Glatzer made the engagingly broad 1993 drama Grief, about love and sex on a daytime TV show, and the pair jointly made the 2001 adult-industry comedy The Fluffer), are congenitally incapable of the gray suffering that defines that doggedly realist era of British cinema. Besides, they have a delightful weakness for showy happy endings.

The movie opens frothily on a quinceañera, the elaborate rite of passage undergone by Mexican Catholic girls when they turn fifteen. At once formal in deference to its ancient Aztec origins and raunchy in deference to its street-smart youth, the ceremony is all pink-and-white tulle and Hummer limos on one hand, all wild reggaetón partying on the other. Hovering in the background of her friend's celebration is Magdalena (newcomer Emily Rios), a testy young thing who dreams of her own big day while consorting with a handsome but evasive A-student boyfriend. When her expanding waistline invokes the fury of her deeply religious father, Magdalena is banished to stay with her great-uncle Tomas (played by veteran Sam Peckinpah actor Chalo Gonzalez), a popular local street vendor who already gives shelter and counsel to another family outcast, Magdalena's cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia). Broody, sexually ambivalent and borderline delinquent, Carlos resents Magdalena's presence and begins hanging out with the two well-heeled middle-class gay men (David W. Ross and Jason L. Wood, the latter also the film's casting director) who have bought the property where Tomas has lived contentedly for many years. Propelled by a taste for money and firm young Latino flesh, the new landlords set about gentrifying the street in more ways than one.

Quinceañera neither skirts nor condescends to the difficulties faced by poor urban communities assailed by rapid change. Like Mi Vida Loca, Allison Anders's 1993 Echo Park girl-gangbanger melodrama, it's an act of solidarity with a threatened minority, but one that never falls into Anders's exuberant embrace of ethnic stereotype. Assuming that Glatzer and Westmoreland don't rent, they're clearly implicated in the gentrification of Echo Park, but this generous, observant movie leaves no doubt about where their sympathies lie. Shot with a handheld camera for reasons more budgetary than aesthetic, it's an untidy, vital slice of Latino life with a loving sense of place and a giddy, improvised feel, with some of the cast and crew (including the filmmakers' cleaning lady) drawn from the neighborhood. There are no drug dealers, racist cops or street gangs waving guns, no neglectful parents -- only loving mothers and excitable fathers who want the best for their kids, and kids like Carlos and Magdalena trying to grow up both Mexican and American. Perhaps it's inevitable that these two are destined to pull together in self-defense and self-definition, but I wouldn't call Quinceañera a sentimental journey. Old Tomas may be a sage and as close as this movie gets to cute, but his fate also points to the dark side of what is happening to traditional working-class neighborhoods under siege from the predatory hubris of the rich. "You live in a whole 'nother world, don't you?" says one of the white landlords, who's been dallying with Carlos behind his partner's back. "No," says Carlos. "You do."

 
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