Quinceanera: Crowd-Pleasing Indie (Sundance)

Wearing its heart on its sleeves, “Quinceanera” is a crowd-pleasing indie that elevates the Latino characters to a saintly mythic level and depicts most of the white characters, particularly the gay ones, in a stereotypical way that might prove offensive to gay men and sophisticated viewers who demand more from independent films.

The biggest disappointment is that the film was written and directed by Wash Westemoreland and Richard Glatzer. Though residing in Echo Park, the portrait of the neighborhood they present is simplistic and one-sided, holding accountable the white bourgeois characters, particularly the gay ones, for the gentrification and decline of genuine communal life.

Glatzer and Westmoreland have playfully labeled their film as “neo-sink drama,” but it turns out to be a fake label, more of a marketing hook, since the film smacks of commercial considerations at the expense of credibility or realism. Nonetheless, in spite of the film’s blatantly simplistic ideology, which recalls Gregory Nava’s “El Norte” and “My Family,” the film has considerable charm, particularly the first two reels, before the melodramatic conflicts kick in and the upbeat ending that resolves them in predictable ways.

As the fifteenth birthday of Magdalena (Emily Rios) approaches, her life is consumed by thoughts of her boyfriend, her Quinceanera dress and the Hummer limo she hopes to ride on that special day. Life seems pleasant in Echo Park neighborhood, where the story is set–that is, until fate delivers a surprise and Magdalena discovers she’s pregnant under mysterious circumstances that cannot be disclosed here.

Bewildered boyfriend Herman (J.R. Cruz) and his mom don’t take it lightly, and neither does her religious and moralistic father (Jesus Castanos-Chima). Expelled from home by her preacher dad, Magdalena moves in with her liberal great granduncle Tio Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez), a kind man who still sells soft drinks out of his old cart, and her seemingly tough Cholo cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia) who, as it turns out, is in the process of coming out.

Soon, Carlos befriends the upscale gay couple (David W. Ross and Jason L. Wood), who live upstairs and own the building. After participating in a three-way sex, he goes on to have an affair with one of them, unbeknownst to the other partner, thus violating the rules of their bond.

Predictably, Tio, Carlos, and Emily, the film’s three misfits, go on to form a makeshift family unit that must fight social stigmas and encroaching urban gentrification that threatens to kill the old and beloved communal life.

As noted, the gay characters are portrayed in a narrowly distorted way. The gay couple seems to suffer from several vices: Greed, as far as real estate is concerned, lust after Latino boys for sex, and perhaps even driving a convertible. In a social scene, all we hear the gays talking about is gossip and trivia.

In contrast, the Latino characters are viewed with warmth and affection, including Magdalena’s cousin Eileen (Alicia Sixtos), her mother (Araceli Guzman-Rico), and even Carlos, who begins as a petty thief, but gains humanity and responsibility after a tragic loss in the family.

Glatzer and Westmoreland are obviously subtler and more sophisticated than their film indicates. I have no doubts that they have deliberately made a broad film in order to gain commercial appeal, particularly after the failure of their previous outings, the ultra-modest “Grief” (which played at Sundance in 1994) and the 2001 “Flapper,” an unfunny, superficial look at the gay porno industry.

At Sundance, “Quinceanera” divided my colleague critics between those who praised the yarn as spirited, unpretentious, and charming, and those who dismissed it as simplistic, inconsequential, and charming (my view).

Let me elaborate: “Quinceanera” is a calculated movie that’s meant to offer “something for everyone.” The movie deals with abortion (sort off) but takes the easy way out by making the subject non-controversial; it deals with gay Latinos (sort off), it deals with Latina girls that are not exactly slender (sort off) in a way that recalls the equally simplistic and charming “Real Women Have Curves;” and it deals with the evils of gentrification (sort off), caused by guppies.

Cast mostly with nonprofessional actors, the film benefits from the natural performances of most of the characters, particularly Garcia and Cruz in the teen roles. Best of all, however, is vet actor Gonzalez, who continues to live in his tiny garden apartment, and represents the soul of the neighborhood even when it declines.

I liked the film’s casual look into Latino adolescence, gay and straight, but I wanted to see a more illuminating and realistic–less sentimental and soothing– portrait of a community in the process of inevitable change trying to cling onto its traditional values.