Fifteen Candles

Quinceañera is a swell party.

Emily Rios as Magdalena

Quinceañera (Sony Pictures Classics), which opens today in New York and Los Angeles and later this month on screens nationwide, has a back story that makes you feel good about the state of independent filmmaking. The directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, are a couple who live in Echo Park, Los Angeles, a formerly Latino neighborhood that’s rapidly gentrifying. In 2004, they served as the official photographers for a neighbor family’s quinceañera, the elaborate birthday party that heralds a 15-year-old girl’s coming of age. Returning from the celebration, Glatzer and Westmoreland realized they’d found the setting for the movie they’d been talking about making together. They conceived of the film in January 2005, wrote it in February, cast it in March, and shot it in April, on a budget of $400,000. The result is a gentle little gem of a movie that won the dramatic grand jury prize and the narrative audience award at Sundance. If that doesn’t make you want to pick up a camera and make a movie with your sweetie, I don’t know what will.

Quinceañera opens at the lavish blowout thrown for 15-year-old Eileen (Alicia Sixtos), complete with flowers, tiaras, and freak-dancing to reggaeton music. A pall is cast when Eileen’s brother Carlos (Jesse Garcia) crashes the party, only to be thrown out on his ear. Carlos is a cholo—a gangster type with a shaved head and a neck tattoo—but, in far worse news for his family, he’s also gay and brazenly unashamed to admit it.

Meanwhile, Eileen’s 14-year-old cousin Magdalena (Emily Rios) is already coveting her own luxurious quinceañera, complete with a white stretch Hummer limo. But Magdalena’s father (Jesus Castanos), an evangelical preacher, disapproves of such worldly longings, and besides, he isn’t made of money. She’ll just have to make do with her cousin’s hand-me-down ball gown—but why does the dress have to be let out more each time she tries it on?

As it turns out, Magdalena is pregnant—not quite an immaculate conception, but the unlikely result of some very heavy petting with her boyfriend, Herman (Ramiro Iniguez). Her rigid father kicks her out of the house, so she moves in with her 84-year-old Tio Tomás (played by Chalo González, a veteran Mexican actor who appeared in The Wild Bunch). Cousin Carlos is holed up there as well, and the three of them slowly meld into an unlikely alternative family. But the property where Tio’s backyard cottage rental sits has just been sold to an affluent gay couple (David W. Ross and Jason L. Wood), who have designs on both the back yard and the handsome young cholowho lives there.

On paper, this story has a schematic, back-to-school-special feel to it, but there’s nothing formulaic or moralizing about Quinceañera. It’s a story that could easily have given way to victimist clichés (the pregnant teen, the gay pariah, the poor, oppressed Mexican-American community). But instead it allows every character the chance to surprise us. Carlos’ impenetrable machismo gives way to a melting playfulness as he starts to fall for the upstairs neighbor (who’s allowed to dally with him only in the guise of a conjugally approved ménage à trois). And Magdalena herself is admirably hard-boiled. When her baby’s father stops returning her calls, she calmly deletes him from her cell-phone memory and gets on with her homework. Emily Rios, the nonprofessional actress chosen to play the lead, carries the movie on her square broad shoulders. Allowing for the occasional misstep—like a plot twist late in the film that’s too obviously telegraphed—Quinceañera is a rare bird of an indie, a sharp-eyed analysis of class conflict that still manages to leave you as choked up as a proud auntie on her niece’s 15th birthday.