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‘Quinceanera’ is a little film with a lot of heart

Surprise winner at Sundance will win you over with its sweet story
/ Source: The Associated Press

Few films, whether from Hollywood studios or the independent world, have as charmed a life as “Quinceanera,” which was conceived, raced into production and triumphed at the Sundance Film Festival, all in barely more than a year.

So it’s nice to say the results of writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s film are pretty charming, too.

“Quinceanera” has plenty of downer moments — this is, after all, the story of a Mexican-American teen ostracized by her father after she becomes pregnant.

Yet the movie’s freshness and vitality compensate for the gloomy premise, and the everyday, matter-of-fact performances from the cast of likable unknowns gives “Quinceanera” a sense of authenticity and helps it avoid the weepy melodrama that overwhelms many teen tales.

Emily Rios makes a striking film debut as a tough-willed girl who finds herself in the classic teen-pregnancy pickle, with a twist — a pseudo-immaculate conception angle that lifts her story from cliche to the files of “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.”

Rios stars as Magdalena, a goodhearted teen whose family lives in Los Angeles’ Echo Park, a traditionally Hispanic neighborhood that’s becoming a gentrified enclave for artists and gays.

Magdalena’s preoccupied with her gabby school pals, her sturdy, nice-guy boyfriend, and her upcoming quinceanera, a festive rite of passage marking her 15th birthday, which she hopes to celebrate with a gown, a Hummer limo and enough pomp to rival prom night.

Though Magdalena insists she and her beau have never had sex, she winds up pregnant, shamed by her preacher father into leaving the house and moving in with her great-great-uncle Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez) and her gay cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), a pariah to his own father.

Together, these three begin to form a tight little family unit that must rally when they find themselves at odds with the new owners of their rental house (David W. Ross and Jason L. Wood).

“Quinceanera” pulled a rare feat at Sundance last January, winning both the jury prize for best dramatic feature and the award as audience favorite.

The double win owes as much to the thin competition at this year’s lackluster Sundance festival as it does to the quality of the film, though. Most years, “Quinceanera” would have been a middle-of-the-pack entry at the Sundance competition, whose contenders have included “American Splendor,” “The Station Agent,” “You Can Count on Me” and “In the Bedroom.”

“Quinceanera” is a fine film, though not on the level of those predecessors. The story ultimately is rather thin, and after building its various character conflicts, the film deflates near the end, everything wrapping up too abruptly and neatly.

It doesn’t leave you thinking about much other than: Hey, maybe we can all just get along.

Glatzer and Westmoreland present a loving look at Echo Park, where they’ve lived since 2001. Two years ago, they were asked to photograph a neighbor’s quinceanera, an event they found wrought with pageantry and a surprising mix of Mexican tradition and American pop culture.

They decided on New Year’s Day in 2005 to make a film about their neighborhood, quickly secured financing, dashed off a script and found their Hispanic neighbors rallying to provide extras, props, shooting locations and other support.

Within nine months, their film was ready for submission to Sundance.

Evoking a palpable sense of a neighborhood in flux, “Quinceanera” is a love song to the diversity of America and the importance of maintaining tradition, even if those traditions have to bend a bit to accommodate changing times.