Quinceañera Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

The Quinceañera is an elaborate coming-out party — kind of a cross between a Bat Mitzvah and a Sweet Sixteen — marking a Mexican-American 15-year-old girl’s spiritual and emotional passage into womanhood. Simultaneously a celebration of ancestral culture and an exercise in upward mobility, it works as a metaphor for both the Mexican-American experience as a whole and the inevitable process of gentrification facing L.A.’s predominantly Hispanic borough of Echo Park, specifically.

A favourite at this year’s Sundance, winning both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury prize, Quinceañera is a heartfelt but undemanding tribute to a neighbourhood in transition and a community in flux. The main narrative revolves around the controversial "virgin pregnancy” (or rather "technical virgin pregnancy,” apparently God’s cool as long as penetration isn’t involved) of Echo Park resident Magdalena during the months leading up to her special day, but the more interesting story involves her cousin Carlos, a semi-closeted young cholo who has just been kicked out of his parents’ house after gay porn is discovered on the family computer.

In Magdalena’s case, the drama is undercut by the kind of preciousness that suggests that reconciliation — she has also been shunned by her strict preacher father — is a given, whereas Carlos’s path to redemption and self-fulfilment is far more layered and ambiguous.

The third and most obvious plot thread neatly ties everything together: after being booted, respectively, Carlos and Magdalena are taken in by their eccentric, infinitely compassionate great uncle Tomas (Peckinpah favourite Chalo Gonzalez). Carlos quickly embarks on his first gay affair with the new yuppie landlords upstairs (stand-ins for the directors themselves), but everything comes to a head when they unceremoniously threaten the beloved Tomas — a symbol for everything Echo Park stands to lose when the original residents will no longer be able to afford to live there — with eviction.

According to its creators, Quinceañera aims for kitchen sink drama but in reality, it has more in common with the quirky sweetness associated with much of the contemporary American indie scene. Written in three weeks and shot with a handheld camera in just 18 days, writers and directors Glatzer and Westmoreland’s love letter to their adopted home tackles everything from racial and class tensions to the age-old intersection between religion and sex. Nevertheless, the end result is more feel good comedy-drama than the "gritty realism” they admire so much in the British working class cinema that originally spawned the genre.

This doesn’t mean that it feels like a "Hollywood” movie — only smaller and with a cast of "ethnic” unknowns — but it doesn’t push the social and political commentary beyond anyone’s comfort zone. It’s a pleasant "slice of life” but hardly representative of the best of American independent film. (Mongrel Media)