Independent cinema has exploded thanks to the proliferation of technology, but truly independent film remains on the periphery. Film festivals are often chock-full of “independent” movies that are headlined by known actors, made by established industry professionals, and backed with millions of dollars. But My Sister’s Quinceañera is what real indie film looks like. Made for pennies on the dollar with a cast of non-actors, it’s a small, quiet, but effective slice of life.
Silas (Silas Garcia) is a twenty-something acting as the man of the house in absence of paternal figures. The oldest of his numerous siblings is anticipating her Quinceañera, a Latin-American coming-of-age celebration for girls. But that impending event is only the loose framework for a plot. What takes center stage are Silas’s relationship with his other sister, Samantha (Samantha Rae Garcia), the friction between him and his mother (Becky Garcia), and his rumbling desire to leave the tiny world of Muscatine, Iowa.
This is a very specific movie, focused on this sphere of the lower-class Mexican-American experience in this particular place, a small town whose name is not shared by any other in the nation. There’s something like a story, but what’s really important is that the audience gain some measure of understanding of this world. The crew, headed by director Aaron Douglas Johnston, worked closely with the community of Muscatine in the production of the film. Johnston himself is from Iowa. There’s a level of verisimilitude on screen unlike any movie I’ve seen in a while.
The best acting doesn’t feel like acting, and the incredibly naturalistic performances that have been coached out of this cast are phenomenal. None of these people had a credit to their name before now. Silas Garcia is an incredibly convincing slacker, sluggish and doofy without ever devolving into caricature. He’s also able to sum up wonderful reserves of decency, as his character struggles between his sense of duty and his yearning for something more out of life. Working in tandem is Becky Garcia’s slow realization that she has to let her son go, even as she fears what she’ll do without him. Everything is on the cusp of change, and the anxieties over preparations for the Quinceañera express the characters’ stress over the future.
The movie is all about cycling through moods. One moment it’s a casual hangout with friends, the next it’s sad, then it’s funny — occasionally even suspenseful. In one scene, Silas and a friend sneak into some rich stranger’s house (which they aren’t 100% sure is empty). Even though they’re doing nothing but messing around, there’s a feeling like a piano wire unwinding underneath it all. You don’t want to think about what happens if they get caught. Alternatively, Silas, Samantha, and a prospective love interest frolicking in a fountain at night in a deserted city square feels inexplicably wonderful and joyous.
My Sister’s Quinceañera clocks in at just over 70 minutes, yet feels longer, and in a good way. You’ve gotten to know these characters so well that you’d gladly spend much more time with them. This is such a little movie, but there’s endless heart inside it.