Most movies dealing with teenagers get them all wrong. Whether we look back fondly or break out in hives while reflecting on these years, we’ve all been there, and it often seems like filmmakers have amnesia about what it was really like. Thankfully, Quinceanera is able to glisten through the droves of teenybopper slop and make a commanding impression. It’s not a perfect film and it doesn’t always hit the notes it is reaching for, but unlike most tired new additions to the genre, at least it tries.
The story, written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, centers around Magdalena (Emily Rios), a Los Angeles teenager preparing for her Quinceanera—a festive, formal gathering where Latina women celebrate turning 15. Her family is far from wealthy and cannot afford the lavish hummer limo that her friend had (oh, the agony of youth), so she mopes around and then returns to gossiping with friends and tuning into “America’s Next Top Model”. She is a pretty typical young adult, except in one key respect: she’s pregnant by main squeeze Herman (Ramiro Iniguez), even though she’s never had sex. Let that one resonate for a minute.
With her Quinceanera right around the corner—and her dress suddenly bursting at the seams from the new addition to her belly—she runs away from her furious preacher father (Jesus Castanos) to stay with her great-great uncle Tomas (Western veteran Chalo González). He is a vivacious senior who tells wild stories from his past and harbors outcasts in his safe haven. Case in point: Carlos (Jesse Garcia), a homosexual rebel with a rap sheet, is also staying there because he has nowhere else to go. Not that he is home much anyway; the older next door neighbors (David W. Ross and Jason L. Wood) have taken an interest in him and regularly invite him over for drinks, chats, and threesomes. But the care-free trysts give way to deeper emotions, throwing even more disarray onto the pile.
Although it may sound a bit like a daytime soap opera, Quinceanera is surprisingly subtle and ripe with good intentions. Above all else, it’s a story about lost souls trying to find a peace that is always out of arm’s reach. That is certainly a theme that many can relate to, and the film never goes overboard or tries to hide the fact that there is hope buried beneath its tough exterior. As a nice change of pace, these young kids are actually played by young kids (Emily Rios is the same age as her character), and they bring a natural vulnerability that is sometimes missing from more seasoned actors. Jesse Garcia is fantastic in the film, portraying a lonely man fighting to find his way, even if that leads him into rather unfortunate situations time and time again.
Where Quinceanera doesn’t entirely succeed is in fleshing out its side characters. A few seem reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes, including the preacher dad who plays like an angry cliché of a religious man scorned, and one of the gay men who acts excessively catty. The movie is primarily worth seeing for the wonderful performances by Emily and Jesse, who always seem like relatable teenagers deserving of our compassion, regardless of the mistakes they make. Quinceanera is a moving tale about family, friendship, and those extravagant teenage parties that somehow never make anyone feel like Cinderella.