It’s been over a decade since Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino revitalized the grindhouse aesthetic with their Death Proof / Planet Terror double feature. Since then, there have only been a few stand-out neo-grindhouse flicks, but it’s heartening to see directors like the multi-talented Gigi Saul Guerrero keeping this gritty genre alive. And with her new web-series La Quinceañera, Gigi is now attempting to bring this retro style of filmmaking to the digital age.
La Quinceañera follows Mia Xitlali as the youngest member of the Santos family, Alejandra, as she reluctantly prepares to celebrate her 15th birthday in the traditional Mexican fashion. Unfortunately, her right of passage is interrupted by members of a sadistic drug cartel who crash the party and begin massacring the guests. With her family’s lives at stake, Alejandra’s journey towards womanhood takes a savage turn as she attempts to survive a day that she won’t soon forget.
Featuring over-the-top violence, creative visuals and some genuine emotional heft, the series contains all the ingredients for a unique (if somewhat wicked) twist on a female coming-of-age story. However, while there are some exceptionally brutal moments peppered throughout this admittedly thrilling tale, the show isn’t quite as stylish or hardcore as it seems to think it is, especially when contrasted with Gigi’s previous work.
Nevertheless, La Quinceañera is still an exciting take on gender roles in Latino families, while still managing to be an entertaining revenge story. There are a few moments that rely far too much on melodramatic tropes, but the more creative elements of the production (like the flashy editing and Alejandra’s flamboyant pink party-dress juxtaposed against the blood-soaked carnage around her) usually make up for that. In fact, were it not for some interesting characters and visual flare, the show could easily have devolved into a run-of-the-mill cartel horror story.
Mia Xitlali also makes for a compelling protagonist, with a character arc that transforms Alejandra from an innocent damsel in distress into something far darker. While a fair amount of Mia’s performance revolves around crying and appearing shocked at the violence around her, you can definitely sense a change in her demeanor as these horrific events push her towards maturity. The rest of the cast is mostly serviceable, with a few standouts like the Del Rio siblings, but the women are the real stars of the show here.
Of course, it does seem a little far-fetched that survivors of the ill-fated Santos family would turn into revenge-obsessed killers so quickly (though it can be argued that this is due to the extreme trauma that they’ve been through). I guess this can be forgiven, considering how the show is at its best during moments of violent retribution, but this transformation still feels a bit odd.
Ultimately, the fast pace and episodic storytelling help to overcome most of La Quinceañera‘s flaws, as there really isn’t enough time to focus on these shortcomings when dealing with savage deaths and rapid-fire flashbacks. The matriarchal subtext and Alejandra’s development as a character are also greatly appreciated, but it’s a shame that the series rushes through so many interesting story beats. While the finale is satisfying, the show has a lot of potential for (and would greatly benefit from) another season, so I’d say it’s definitely worth a watch.
La Quinceañera is available now on STUDIO+ and will have its feature Canadian premiere at next month’s Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal!