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Film(s) Review: Quinceañera vs. Wassup Rockers

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While a couple of movies are hardly enough to qualify as zeitgeist, there's something serendipitous about the back-to-back release of two films featuring teenage Latino protagonists growing up in East Los Angeles.* Wassup Rockers and Quinceañera both focus on teenagers defying familial and cultural expectations, but even though they were both shot on video and take a quasi-documentary approach towards their subjects, they achieve very different results.

Combining elements of L.A.'s Latino culture with elements of skateboarding and punk rock subcultures, cinematic provocateur Larry Clark has created Wassup Rockers, an odyssey about a group of teenage boys who skateboard their way across Los Angeles. Clark's typical fetishization of nubile teenage bodies is coupled with long, handheld takes, creating a self-consciously verité style that's halfway between a gritty, fly-on-the-wall documentary and a glossy underwear ad. Watching Wassup Rockers is essentially like watching a bunch of kids hang out, which is both the film's strength and its weakness.

None of the boys in the film had any acting experience, they all used their real names or nicknames onscreen and instead of a traditional script, Clark worked off a loose outline of what was supposed to happen in each scene. This technique works for the first half of the movie (although even that could stand some trimming) as Clark and cinematographer Steve Gainer capture moments of genuine intimacy amidst the drinking, skating and dirty jokes.

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But it falls flat when the boys, led by Jonathan (Jonathan Velasquez) and Kiko (Francisco Pedrasa), head to Beverly Hills where they skate their way across the backyards of the wealthy in an homage to Frank Perry's The Swimmer, one of Clark's favorite films. On their journey the boys have a bunch of random, pointless encounters with a slew of clueless, rich people caricatures including a gay art star, a gun-toting film director and a debauched, Botox-ed older woman on the prowl for fresh meat (Janice Dickinson in her most autobiographical role?).

One of the main reasons he wanted to make Wassup Rockers, Clark has said, is that it gave him the opportunity to show a segment of society that's almost never seen onscreen. As Clark points out, whenever you see a movie with kids that look like this (read: poor & Latino) they're usually drug addicts or gang bangers. But the boys in Wassup Rockers have a genuine sweetness. All they want to do is have fun, skate and listen to punk rock. Unfortunately, that's not enough for a film.

Quinceañera, while being less self-consciously gritty, has a more satisfying coming-of-age narrative. Co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, the romantic and creative duo behind the surprisingly dark and shamefully underappreciated gay porn drama The Fluffer**, have made one of the better American independent movies to come out in years. Quinceañera is a quiet, incisive drama that doesn't make any tortured stabs at importance and paradoxically succeeds because of it.

A few months shy of her quinceañera, 14-year-old Magdalena (excellently played by newcomer Emily Rios) discovers she's pregnant though she and her boyfriend have never actually had intercourse. Her deeply religious father throws her out, and she moves in with her great-uncle Thomas (Chalo González) and her thuggish cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), who has been kicked out by his parents because he's gay.

The audience is invited to see the world through Magdalena's eyes as she struggles to cope with her boyfriend's callousness, her friends' indifference and her family's judgment, all of which is set against the backdrop of a vibrant Latino community that's increasingly being squeezed by the gentrification of Echo Park. A gay male couple who could be a stand-in for the filmmakers themselves have bought the building where Thomas lives. Immediately upon moving in, they initiate hot three-way sex with Carlos, but when the burgeoning affair becomes a threat to their relationship, they evict the entire family.

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These scenes are naturalistically played so that the story unfolds with a minimum of overwrought emotion. Glatzer and Westmoreland subtly convey Magdalena's emotional dilemma without vilifying or idealizing the community that has cast her out. The sense of security and identity provided by one's ethnic community is contrasted with the strictures and narrow-mindedness of that community's rules.

One final thing: Wassup Rockers and Quinceañera were both directed by white men who are outsiders to the cultures they're depicting. Although both movies are worth watching, it's also worth wondering if either film would have been funded had they been directed by Latino filmmakes.

* Wassup Rockers and Quinceañera both had their U.S. debuts in January 2006 at Park City film festivals. Quinceanera premiered at Sundance where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the Dramatic Competition, while Wassup Rockers opened the Slamdance Film Festival.
** Under the name Wash West, Westmoreland directs gay pornos such as The Hole, which Bjorn claims is the best pornographic gay spoof of The Ring you'll ever see.