Just to get it out of the way: Quinceañera does not resemble, in any way, the most repellent show on television (and that's quite a competition), My Super Sweet Sixteen, which we do have to give the credit for making the term "quinceañera" familiar to white America in the first place — though it does bear noting that a Hummer limo is a plot point. But if you (like, for example, my roommate) are a fan of that latest iteration of MTV's full-frontal assault against the glue that holds our culture together1, then consider yourself warned going in.
But I do urge you to go in nonetheless, because Quinceañera is a perfectly good little movie. The first hour in particular is excellent: sporting an appealingly unflashy and naturalistic approach to pace and dialogue, and an intriguing combination of both amateurish and superb acting, the film unfolds with a refreshing sense of portraying "real" life — which is a despicably overused and vacant term, certainly, but it's the easiest way to describe the sensation that the action on the screen is not dictated by a determination to express a machine-like plot or a didactic theme. Indeed, the central concern of the plot is revealed only in fits and spurts, all the while retaining a compelling feeling of mystery and ambiguity.
Unfortunately, by the film's end, a line gets crossed and the "maudlin" button gets pressed, turning a pleasantly unconventional film into an almost surprisingly conventional one (if anything "conventional" can ever be described as "surprising"), but thankfully by that point the film has done its work well enough to keep you feeling connected to the characters and invested in the resolutions they arrive at. While that's a testament to the nimble writing and directing of Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland, it's also largely the gifts of the three core actors (Emily Rios as 14-year-old Magdalena, Jesse Garcia as her gay-gangbanger cousin Carlos, and Chalo Gonzalez as their grandfather-figure Tio Thomas) that keep the movie afloat through the more saccharine moments.
While I can't shake the feeling that it could have been a deeply remarkable film instead of a simply enjoyable one if only it had relied a little less on stock plotting, there's more than enough here to set Quinceañera apart from the crop of festival-friendly feel-good "ethnic" films that generally crowd New York cinemas. Pop it into your Netflix queue and be pleasantly surprised when it arrives, won't you?
(1) I never thought I could become such a grown-up-sounding fuddy-duddy, but the more I think about it (and I urge you to do so as well), the more I realize that the broadcast history of the last dozen years of MTV really has been about systematically and vigorously rewarding destructively antisocial impulses on the part of spoiled, sub-human morons. And no, I'm not just bitter because they don't play videos anymore. But that does bug me too. ↩