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A girl, and a neighborhood, in transition

At its core, ``Quinceañera," a modest but remarkably poignant comedy, is the story of a neighborhood. But it's also a boy-meets-girl story. The boy, Carlos (Jesse Garcia), and the girl, Magdalena (Emily Rios), are first cousins. She's pregnant and he's gay, and both find themselves cast out of their respective Catholic Mexican homes and into the small backyard house of their 83-year-old bachelor uncle. This is a boy-meets-girl story because after much antagonism between them, the two become loving, allied outcasts.

The title ``Quinceañera" comes from the traditional celebration Hispanic girls have when they turn 15 -- Magdalena is on the verge of hers. This is Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's second feature together -- their first was 2001's porn-industry melodrama ``The Fluffer " -- and what the new movie lacks in visionary skill it makes up for in charm and unmistakable wistfulness about the depleting effects of gentrification.

Old Tomas (Chalo González) has been living blissfully in that garden house in Los Angeles's Echo Park area for 28 years. The property was recently bought by Gary and James (David W. Ross and Jason L. Wood), the white gay couple who live in the condominium above Tomas's place. These two find it hard to resist Carlos, who dresses like a cholo (oversize flannel shirt, baggy khakis, gang tattoos), inviting him to a housewarming party and eventually into their bed.

While Magdalena is trying to figure out whether her scholarly boyfriend (J.R. Cruz) is serious about sticking around, Carlos is zipping upstairs to James and Gary's. And eventually, unfortunate circumstances force him and his two roomies to do a bit of scrambling.

Glatzer and Westmoreland are themselves a couple (they're Echo Park denizens, too), and they've allowed into their movie an unflattering but not inaccurate glimpse of some gay men as a selfish, exoticizing imperialists, keeping what they find attractive and junking what they find intolerable. In so many ways, James and Gary come to represent the cultural climate change in a lot of urban American neighborhoods. Poor ethnic enclaves turn gradually less poor, less ethnic, and more homogenized, a fact that's not lost on Magdalena -- or Carlos, for that matter.

The movie includes some shallow dinner party patter between James, Gary, and their friends that reduces Carlos and other Latin men into sex fetishes. But the film insists on its characters' humanity. Rios seems so much wiser than her character's 14 years. We can see her balancing Magdalena's girlish concerns (she really wants to arrive at her quinceañera in a Hummer) with more pressing matters -- she's running out of clothes that fit, for instance. Sweetly, Carlos loans her one of his flannel shirts, which is probably long enough for her to wear as the gown for her quinceañera.

The movie is overwritten and good news tritely follows bad, yet somehow it feels authentic in all its small details: the signs on telephone poles for accent-elimination classes or the way González (who, decades ago, had a smallish part in ``The Wild Bunch") pushes his shopping cart around the neighborhood, selling hot champurrado. At this year's Sundance Film Festival, the movie won the hearts of the people (the audience award) and the artists (the jury award).

But really, ``Quinceañera" is most impressive as a document of transition. We can see ownership and perspective in the neighborhood sadly changing hands, but not without some kind of challenge. After Carlos shows Gary a few gang hand signs, Gary (who's English to boot) is wowed: ``You live in a whole `nother world, don't you?" ``No," says Carlos, ``you do."

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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