My Sister's Quinceanera: LAFF Review

My Sister's Quinceanera Film Still - H 2013

My Sister's Quinceanera Film Still - H 2013

Likable, low-key film introduces us to the Garcias of Iowa.

LA Film Fest entry focuses on a Hispanic family in the Midwest.

Good movies can open our eyes to hidden parts of America, and that is the chief enticement of My Sister’s Quinceanera, one of the movies in the narrative competition at LA Film Fest this year. The title and the largely Hispanic cast may lead you to suspect that this is a story set in Los Angeles or another part of the Southwest. But it was actually filmed in Muscatine, Iowa, where writer-director Aaron Douglas Johnston grew up. He remarked after the screening that the small town on the Mississippi River is about 10 percent Hispanic, and he recruited members of that community to appear in the film. While the movie has no overt political agenda, it does remind us of the growing diversity of our society. The film is no more than a tender slice of life without much narrative push, but audiences will warm to the vivid characters.

The main figure is Silas (Silas Garcia), who is trying to decide what he wants to do with his life. He is the oldest sibling in a large family headed by a single mother who often works long hours. Silas wants to break away from his small town, but he is attached to his siblings, especially his feisty sister Samantha (Samantha Garcia), who is jealous of sister Elizabeth (Elizabeth Agapito), the one about to celebrate her quinceanera. Silas appears to be floundering in his efforts to make a living. He hangs out with a slacker buddy, and their main activity seems to be breaking into the homes of rich people -- not to steal, but simply to bask in the trappings of a more opulent lifestyle.

Minor crises emerge: their mother tries to persuade the absent father to attend the quinceanera, and Silas begins dating a young local woman who wants to know his plans. But most of the film consists of uneventful moments of family interaction. The engaging performances by the cast of mainly nonprofessional actors help to keep us involved. Most of the roles are played by members of two separate Garcia families who are not related. Johnston wins convincing performances from all of them -- they may not have movie star faces or bodies, but they are intriguing to watch.

What may be even more impressive is the sense of place that Johnston captures. We really get a feeling for this lazy riverfront community with small but attractive houses. While the place is not upscale, it is seductive enough to allow us to understand Silas’ reluctance to leave this tranquil setting for a more thriving urban center. Made on a modest budget, the film nevertheless finds just the right details to make the setting come alive. High praise should go to cinematographer Hayo van Gemert and art directors Rianne Ebeling and Sanne Himmelreich. The film might have benefited from more dramatic punch, but it is pleasant to spend time with these appealing characters and discover an unfamiliar corner of Americana.

Production: Double Life Productions

Cast: Silas Garcia, Becky Garcia, Elizabeth Agapito, Samantha Garcia, Tanner McCulley, Josefina Garcia, Nicole Streat

Director-screenwriter-producer: Aaron Douglas Johnston.

Director of photography: Hayo van Gemert

Production designers: Rianne Ebeling, Sanne Himmelreich.

Music: Juho Nurmela, Alekos Vuskovic

Editor: Xander Nijsten

No rating, 72 minutes.