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August 18, 2006

Sweet fifteen

A girl and her family come of age, and maybe the filmmakers, too

The Echo Park section of Los Angeles is a world in flux.

Filled with Mexican-Americans and immigrants from the south, a new wave of settlers is entering the area: wealthy suburbanites intent on gentrification.

However, the old ways still hold on the streets of Echo Park, with girls becoming women at their quinceañeras, or the celebration of their 15th birthdays.

Part bat mitzvah, part Sweet Sixteen, the quinceañera is a major rite of passage, and the bookends of the new film Quinceañera by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, who created The Fluffer.

The film begins with Eileen’s quinceañera, introducing all the main players: her cousin Magdalena (Emily Rios), who is in love with straight-A student Herman; Eileen’s older brother Carlos (Jesse Garcia), who has been ostracized for some as-yet-unknown reason, and their great-granduncle Tio Tomas (Chalo González), who took Carlos in when his parents booted him out.

While Eileen and Carlos’ parents are wealthy and successful, Magdalena’s father is the minister at their church and the family far from affluent, although they are comfortable. Eileen gets the glitz and glamour, while Magdalena is expected to be more “traditional.”

Her wishes for a Hummer limo for her own upcoming quinceañera are scoffed at by her father, viewed as a distraction from her dedication to a life of piety.

So imagine his response when she becomes pregnant . . .

Of course, she knows that she didn’t have sex with Herman, and Herman knows he didn’t have sex with her, but her father simply won’t believe it. He kicks her out, and she winds up moving in with Tio Tomas and Carlos.

Carlos was kicked out of his house because he is gay. It’s not exactly what a good Chicano Catholic father expects from his son.

Oh sure, Carlos is butch, and he’s never actually had sex with another man yet, but that might change with the two gay men who moved into the main house on the property where Tio Tomas lives. They apparently have as much of a taste for Latino men as they do for gentrification.

However, when they decide that they no longer want to rent out the little apartment in back to Tio Tomas, who has lived their for 28 years, their actions start a sequence of events that change Carlos, Magdalena and Tomas’ lives completely.

When one thinks of The Fluffer, Glatzer and Westmoreland are able filmmakers for handling indie gay flicks. Westmoreland got his start in porn, in fact, which came in handy in The Fluffer.

However, the names don’t bring to mind moving family dramas, even if one-third of the film is gay-themed. Somehow, going from fluffing to family isn’t an easy step to imagine.

But they surprise us. Not only do they elicit moving performances from their stars, they have crafted an intimate portrait of three very different people who are joined together by love and dedication to each other.

Carlos is an angry young man, and justifiably so, having been kicked out not because his father caught him with another boy, as his sister Eileen says, but because he tracked down the websites Carlos was visiting.

Magdalena is an innocent in so many ways, a virgin yet pregnant, accused of being a liar yet having told the truth.

Connecting them to each other and back to the families that spurned them is Tio Tomas, universally respected and completely loving, non-judgmental. Tomas is almost a Christ figure, wishing nothing for himself but ready to give freely of himself to anyone who has need of him.

The trio give performances so genuine, so heartfelt, at times it almost feels like a documentary, as if the myriad camera angles and pans and dolly-shots have all been hidden from real people going through the dramas of their everyday lives.

The gay community hailed and embraced The Fluffer, as silly as the film about a gay man’s unrequited love for a porn star was. Let’s hope the community is as giving for this movie as well, since it is far superior to the earlier effort.

It may even be the bridge that can truly connect the LGBT and Latino communities, since it very obviously has much love for both of them.


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