There Goes the Neighborhood

Feliz cumpleaos: Rios as Quinceaeras birthday girl (Sony Pictures Classics)

A winning tale of sex, real estate and more or less immaculate conception, Quinceañera, as you might expect from a white-made drama about Latino life in Echo Park, threatens at first blush to be all about a pregnant teenager and a prodigal cholo in the hood. Yet this saucy, rowdy, heartfelt and terribly sweet movie — a popular item at Sundance this year, where it won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for dramatic features — edges as close to a complex view from within as can be hoped for from a couple of gay boys who moved into the neighborhood, got an invite from the neighbors to photograph their daughter’s coming-of-age ceremony and saw the kernel of a movie. Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, Quinceañera is, a trifle oddly, intended as a tribute to 1960s English kitchen-sink drama, particularly to Tony Richardson’s 1961 A Taste of Honey, whose plot it freely plunders. But Glatzer and Westmoreland, a couple whose contributions to queer cinema lean toward warm-hearted schlock (Glatzer made the engagingly broad 1993 drama Grief, about love and sex on a daytime TV show, and the pair jointly made the 2001 adult-industry comedy The Fluffer), are congenitally incapable of the gray suffering that defines that doggedly realist era of British cinema. Besides, they have a delightful weakness for showy happy endings.

The movie opens frothily on a quinceañera, the elaborate rite of passage undergone by Mexican Catholic girls when they turn 15. At once formal in deference to its ancient Aztec origins and raunchy in deference to its street-smart youth, the ceremony is all pink-and-white tulle and Hummer limos on the one hand, all wild reggaeton partying on the other. Hovering in the background of her friend’s celebration is Magdalena (newcomer Emily Rios), a stroppy young thing who dreams of her own upcoming big day while consorting with a handsome but evasive A-student boyfriend. When her expanding waistline invokes the fury of her deeply religious father, Magdalena is banished to stay with her great-uncle Tomas (played by veteran Sam Peckinpah actor Chalo Gonzalez), a popular local street vendor who already gives shelter and counsel to another family outcast, her cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia). Broody, sexually ambivalent and borderline delinquent, Carlos resents Magdalena’s presence and begins hanging out with the two well-heeled middle-class gay men (David W. Ross and Jason L. Wood, the latter also the film’s casting director) who have bought the property where Tomas has lived contentedly for many years, and, propelled by a taste for money and firm young Latino flesh, set about gentrifying the street in more ways than one.

Quinceañera neither skirts nor condescends to the difficulties faced by poor urban communities assailed by rapid change. Like Mi Vida Loca, Allison Anders’ 1993 Echo Park girl-gangbanger melodrama, it’s an act of solidarity with a threatened minority, but one that never falls into Anders’ exuberant embrace of ethnic stereotype. Assuming that Glatzer and Westmoreland don’t rent, they’re clearly implicated in the gentrification of Echo Park, but this generous, observant movie leaves no room for doubt about where their sympathies lie. Shot with a hand-held camera for reasons more budgetary than aesthetic, it’s an untidy, vital slice of Latino life with a loving sense of place and a giddy, improvised feel (some of the cast and crew were drawn from the neighborhood — including the filmmakers’ cleaning lady). There are no drug dealers, racist cops or street gangs waving guns, no neglectful parents — only loving mothers and excitable fathers who want the best for their kids, and kids like Carlos and Magdalena trying to grow up both Mexican and American. Perhaps it’s inevitable that these two are destined to pull together in self-defense and self-definition, but I wouldn’t call Quinceañera a sentimental journey. Old Tomas may be a sage and as close as this movie gets to cute, but his fate also points to the dark side of what is happening to traditional working-class neighborhoods under siege from the predatory hubris of the rich. “You live in a whole ’nother world, don’t you?” says one of the white landlords who’s been dallying with Carlos behind his partner’s back. “No,” says Carlos. “You do.”

Like Quinceañera, André Téchiné’s ambitious new film, Changing Times, taps the inseparability of the body politic from the body private, in this case through a series of interlocking encounters between white Westerners and Arabs that toss received boundaries of race, gender and class up in the air and let the chips fall where they may. Or must, since every Téchiné film is driven by the primacy of ungovernable passion over pragmatism, albeit with a wistful sense of the price paid. Set in Tangier, where East and West still mingle in relative if increasingly precarious harmony, Changing Times seethes with uneasy, contingent pairings: a Western boss and his Arab workers; a white woman and her Arab husband; their son, half-French, half-Moroccan, listing from straight to gay as he divides his attention between his troubled Arab girlfriend (who, in turn, has a devout Muslim twin who works at McDonald’s) and the working-class Moroccan boy he can’t let go.

No doubt about it, Téchiné loves to pile on the parallels, both private and public. As if all these binary couplings weren’t enough, the war in Iraq hovers rather too glibly in the background, and witchcraft shows up to confound Western reason and thicken the plot, whose intricacies threaten to engulf the love story at the movie’s heart. The film opens with French engineer Antoine (Gérard Depardieu) yelling at his Arab employees for their failure to work hard enough (on a Sunday), then apparently succumbing to a mudslide caused by his own carelessness. Now there’s a symbolic ending for you, but Téchiné mischievously leaves us wondering where to place this event in the movie, and whether to read it as comedy, tragedy or just desserts. We learn that Antoine has come to Tangier ostensibly to oversee the building of a spanking-new media center to rival Al-Jazeera’s, but really to reconnect with his long-lost love, Cécile (Catherine Deneuve), now an apparently contented frau and radio talk-show host carrying listeners’ messages of the romantic love she herself renounced long ago.

A common tic these days, especially among male film critics, is to rave on nervously about how 50-plus actresses like Deneuve or Charlotte Rampling remain “as beautiful as ever.” At best this is gallantry, at worst disingenuousness or fantasy trumping reality. Like other women her age, Deneuve has inevitably lost much of her silky radiance, and the unfortunate bee-stung lips she’s acquired belong on a much younger woman. But like Rampling, who’s up there with Meryl Streep in scoring an abundance of movie roles of late, she’s been lucky or wise enough to let other energies come to the fore, notably a worldly and amused practicality that gestures secretively at unfinished erotic business. All but dumpy in a porkpie hat and a shapeless blue shirt covering her ample body, Cécile is the essence of an ordinary woman come to terms with her life — except for the bottomless dark eyes that signal she’s not yet done with desire, or with the flirty exercise of feminine power.

Antoine, with his bulbous potato nose, his blundering pursuit of Cécile in full view of her either tolerant or smug husband (Gilbert Melki), may be her opposite, but she has his number as completely as she does that of her confused son, Sami (Malik Zidi), who swings between lovers like an unhinged pendulum. No saint herself, Cécile does battle with Sami as some strong mothers do with their gay sons, through seduction and control. But she gets him, as she does Antoine, far more thoroughly than either man gets himself. In Téchiné’s movies (four of which have been vehicles for Deneuve), it’s almost always the feminine, loosely defined, that wins the day. “You can’t possess someone without causing some harm,” Antoine’s Moroccan assistant (and potion-supplier) Nabila (Nabila Baraka) warns him. Given the choice, Téchiné will always plump for the damage, and his women lead the way while fully counting the cost. Full of last-minute surprises, this willfully slippery movie seems to make the case both for mixing it up and sticking to your own kind. Which is all of a piece with the sensibility of this wonderfully ambiguous filmmaker, a visionary of our changing times.

QUINCEAÑERA | Written and directed by RICHARD GLATZER and WASH WESTMORELAND | Produced by ANNE CLEMENTS | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At ArcLight, Monica 4-Plex, Playhouse 7, Town Center 5

CHANGING TIMES | Directed by ANDRÉ TÉCHINÉ | Written by TÉCHINÉ, LAURENT GUYOT and PASCAL BONITZER | Produced by PAULO BRANCO | Released by Koch Lorber Films | At NuWilshire, Sunset 5

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