DIRECTED by: Aaron Douglas Johnston Film Pulse Score: 7/10
Quiet, naturalistic storytelling rarely gets noticed amidst the clamor of today’s blockbuster narratives, but My Sister’s Quinceañera is more than deserving of audience’s attention. Nonprofessional actors, unshowy locations, and a simple and honest story give this film an immersive quality that feels a thousand times more genuine than what’s usually in the Hollywood scene.
A ‘Quinceañera’ (which literally means ‘one who is fifteen’), is a Latin American celebration that takes place on a girl’s fifteen birthday, marking her transition from childhood into womanhood. There was no initial script to My Sister’s Quincera. It all began as a small independent film workshop in Muscatine, Iowa. “I wanted to figure out what kind of story would be important to tell, ” says writer/director Aaron Douglas Johnston, who based the film on the struggles of the students who had signed up for his film workshop. “I wanted to capture a portrait of my hometown and the strength of Iowa’s neglected Hispanic community.” The result was a loose, character-driven story following a young man named Silas (Silas Garcia), who must find a balance between caring for his single-mom and siblings and his desire to break away from his small home town, all while helping his sister prepare for her coming-of-age celebration.
This film requires patience. Like most contemporary neo-realist films, it’s meandering and undramatic, with no clear plot nor conclusive ending. Many of the scenes, when followed to their end, lead nowhere, but we’re brought there in a beautiful way. Johnston captures an intimate sense of place with nostalgic shots of Muscatine that could’ve only been captured by someone who knew and loved the town as much as he did. Although the story itself is fictional, most of the cast was related, which added a degree of authenticity to their performances. While it’s clear that these are non-professional actors and there are moments where the acting feels off, it never took away from the fascination of watching real people with real faces and bodies developing relationships that were heavily based on their own.
Overall, My Sister’s Quinceañera could’ve benefited from a bit more of a narrative nudge, but the film still delivers a simple, honest, and watchable 70 minute immersion into a subject that’s rarely given the attention it deserves. Johnston’s quiet and careful eye makes this enjoyable for anyone who favors modesty and simplicity over showiness and overburdened storylines.