Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s “Quinceañera” is made up of little moments. One of them shows Magdalena (Emily Rios) and a younger sibling as they watch TV — specifically, America’s Next Top Model. “Congratulations, you’re on your way to becoming America’s next top model,” Tyra Banks repeatedly half-whispers to the remaining contestants, as Magdalena watches from her couch. Her younger male companion’s fascination with the screen may or may not mean that he’ll follow in the footsteps of cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia) and become a “gay.” As for Magdalena, she seems detached from, maybe even unimpressed by, the beauty pageant. She has other things on her mind — she’d like to be able to celebrate her 15th birthday, but she’s pregnant.
This scene gains a potent undercurrent if you take into account the fact that one of “Quinceañera’s” co-creators — Glatzer — is also a producer of “America’s Next Top Model.” Glatzer and his collaborator obviously have a self-critical sense of humor about the progressive (namely, non-white) and retrograde elements of a show that ultimately judges and peddles female beauty. Tyra and company’s brief televised cameo also sets their film’s story into relief — rooted in the filmmakers’ own experiences, “Quinceañera’s” narrative reaches far beyond the formulas and strictures of a typical TV show (or mainstream movie).
Glatzer’s Tyra ties (and Westmoreland’s work as a porn director) make me wonder what the industry-savvy duo might think of another, less stalwart example of the “reality TV” phenomenon, MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16.” In a sense, “Quinceañera’s” exploration of Magdalena’s rite-of-passage is the warm-hearted, humane opposite of the MTV show’s proud cruelty and incessant glorification of absurdly wasteful and selfish spending habits. The contrast, in a sense defined by the TV show’s conventions or restrictions, makes “Quinceañera” seem cornier and simpler than it is — Glatzer and Westmoreland see more than just greed behind Magdalena’s wish for a birthday-bash Hummer limo outfitted with a stripper pole.
In contrast, “My Super Sweet 16” is the kind of increasingly popular so-called entertainment that rubs conspicuous consumption in viewer’s faces in an almost mean-spirited way. The majority of the show’s subjects come across as horrid brats at best, yet any material ripe for possible societal critique — the unhealthy relationship between a father with an anger management problem and the daughter whose affections he’s busying as if she’s a call girl, for example — usually gets lost in the spree-shopping. This is especially the case when “My Super Sweet 16” is placed next to similar spend-spend-spend celebrations like “The Fabulous Life of
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