Tuesday, July 17, 2007

On the margins, on screen

It is all too easy to ignore immigrants as a subject for film. Much of society wants to ignore them as people, so it’s not surprising that they barely figure on screen. This is not only despite having all the same problems as non-immigrants (family, love, money) but a whole litany more (assimilation, deportation, acceptance).

That’s why it was heartening to see Quinceanera, known in England as Echo Park, LA, which deals with both these types of problems: we see the dilemmas of immigrants as immigrants and as humans, instead of one-dimensional issues about crossing the border or getting sent home.

A quinceanera is a celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday held in Hispanic communities; it’s analogous to a Jewish bar mitzvah or a secular sweet sixteenth. Magdalena is approaching hers when she finds out she is pregnant by her boyfriend. Her preacher father kicks her out, so she goes to live with her great-great-uncle and her gay cousin, another teenager rejected by his family.

The film works extremely well for several reasons. The acting is wonderfully understated, and Emily Rios, who plays Magdalena, is a revelation, shifting easily between defiance and heartbreak, all rolled up in teenage girl anxieties and grown-up concerns. Her similarly defiant cousin Carlos, involved in an awkward, deceptive ménage a trois with a neighbouring couple, is convincing in his first love. The atmosphere is well-portrayed too: the sun-drenched photography enhances the stifling, vivid scenery of LA’s urban desert.

But Quinceanera succeeds most of all because it manages to interweave the immigrant background of the characters with their present, more Americanised desires. The strict Catholic morals of her resolutely Spanish-speaking father jar with Magdalena’s more cosmopolitan, Anglo teenage ambitions – sex, love, friends, parties – all of which are reinforced by American culture. Her quinceanera must have a stretch Hummer limo, like all her friends did. Magdalena’s great-great-uncle represents a middle way, learning to speak English yet selling Mexican food to Angelenos, a melancholy yet content figure.

The film, already under no illusions, also subtly comments on the position of immigrants in society when two WASPy women are shown buying food from one of the characters’ stalls: “These are the best tacos in LA,” she’s heard saying, purchasing food in an area she’d never be caught dead in otherwise.

Quinceanera feels like a realistic portrayal of how immigrant families struggle, trying to adopt a new identity without wanting to erase wholly the old one, all the while dealing with the same issues as the rest of the world. It shows how immigrant communities can provide not only an interesting, unfamiliar background but also stories just as involving as those in the mainstream. There is no artistic reason to ignore them.

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