Monday, 27 November 2006

Quinceanera (2006)

Ah, Sundance!

The festival evokes impressions of independent films helmed by directors armed with digital cameras, shooting small films with youthful protagonists, capturing the slice of life, that elusive moment in time, of racial minorities and other American subcultures. These indie directors often do not aim for the level of social commentary beyond “Sesame Street for adults”. It’s extremely peculiar that a festival for independent films could, in less than 15 years from its founding, attract films that look so much like each other and are so predictable that you could, like the geniuses at Deconstructing Sundance, write a software programme that predicts (with 80% accuracy) which films will win the Sundance prizes, just by how far they stick to the tried and tested Sundance indie film formula. It’s a pity, because the festival has shown itself capable of springing surprises like Saw, The Blair Witch Project, El Mariachi, and Napoleon Dynamite.

That is to say, read the poster carefully before you decide to buy tickets for the movie. You’ll do well to notice that Quinceanara won both the jury and audience prizes at Sundance this year. The setting: Echo Park, Los Angeles, a run-down Hispanic neighbourhood undergoing the early ravages of gentrification. Its main protagonists in the story read like a list of the usual suspects from a Sundance flick for young adults: a teen mother who is not even 15, carrying a child of a scarcely older boy who’s pretty sure it isn’t his because they never had penetrative sex. Exiled from home by her very morally upright father (a policeman who doubles as the preacher in the community church), she lives with her old-as-time uncle (the stock saintly and accepting elderly relative figure) and her similarly exiled hoodlum and gay cousin, in a small but homely shack at the back of a bungalow, owned by two men who have just moved into the neighbourhood, like the rich Anglos and other lesbian couples you meet in the movie.

The list of characters are such stock characters in stock “awww shucks” indie film situations that the only bright spot in this deliberately harmless movie are the slightly saucy scenes where the gay cousin frolicks with the Anglo landlords, and the times when Chalo González appears on screen. A Sam Peckinpah alumnus, González takes a hammy community theatre role that would easily sink in the hands of any actor, and makes this paper thin role sing. Unfortunately, the inoffensive set-up and characters aren’t sufficient to carry the show.

Underneath Quinceanera is a story about the exclusion and sanctioning of social “misfits” by an otherwise close-knit Hispanic community, the insidious invasion of ageing neighbourhoods by yuppies who jack up land prices and lead to landlords evicting long-time tenants, the invisible racism within the gay community and its exoticisation of ethnic minorities, or even the one-upmanship of middle class families who treat the 15th birthday celebrations of their daughters as a debutante ball than a coming‑of‑age ceremony. Unfortunately, such stories require guts and honesty to tell, and not the directors’ penchant for avoiding confrontations and strange desire to please and baby audiences, and mollycoddle the subjects of their film.

While the film throws up so many possibilities for conflict and resolution, the directors actually present to audiences a film devoid of any conflict, a film that ends up feeling like one of those "and so this happened and that happened and then that other thing happened" just-so stories. Every loose end (since the directors assiduously avoid any real conundrums in their script) is tied up all too neatly, too shallow and yet seemingly heart-warming nevertheless. Quinceanera is a twee little film that should just suit one of those days when you’re too really tired to think, but want to be entertained, and yet ashamed of watching an outright and honestly brain-dead flick at the cinema. Audiences who want to be provoked should remember that the Sundance Film Festival is no longer what it used to be, and watch this with revised expectations.

Perhaps the most enjoyable sequences in Quinceanera are its almost voyeurish segments between the gay cousin and the landlords. Clearly, the directors’ previous experience in making gay porn and slightly more mainstream comedies (The Fluffer) make these the most watcheable and entertaining interludes in the movie.

First published at incinemas on 30 November 2006

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