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Real Women Have Curves

Movie review by Greg Carlson

After picking up the Audience Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, it is easy to see why “Real Women Have Curves” is popular with moviegoers.  Alternately working the timeworn traditions of a mother-daughter generation gap struggle and the rites-of-passage, coming-of-age awakenings of a young high-school graduate, the film sparkles with a sense of its own hearty universality.  “Real Women Have Curves,” as its clever title suggests, also adds to its mix the running theme of weight and self-image – a central issue addressed in virtually every scene in the film.  This story has been told before, but the winning performances of the entire cast, and the measured composure of the script, help make the movie a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Set in the working class sunshine of East Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights, “Real Women Have Curves” begins on 18-year-old Ana Garcia’s (America Ferrera) final day of classes at Beverly Hills High School (Ana’s bus ride from East L.A. to get to BHHS immediately sets up the cultural divide between the working class and the wealthy, and reminds the audience that Ana has already pushed herself hard in order to be able to go to school in Beverly Hills).  Ana’s compassionate teacher, Mr. Guzman (George Lopez), recognizes the young woman’s intelligence and potential, and has taken steps to help Ana apply to NYC’s Columbia University.

Naturally, Ana’s traditional, tightly-knit family expects her to help out at older sister Estela’s (Ingrid Oliu) small, sweltering dress-making business.  Matriarch Carmen (stalwart favorite Lupe Ontiveros) goes one better, insisting that Ana lose weight in order to lure a husband.  Even though Ana wants none of this – especially her mother’s unwelcome meddling – she begrudgingly accepts a job at Estela’s little factory, ironing dresses in sauna-like conditions.  Rebellious and bitter at first, Ana soon begins to realize how hard her family works, and discovers that she is torn between going to college and obeying the wishes of her family.

First-time director Patricia Cardoso, working from a screenplay by George LaVoo and Josefina Lopez (that has been adapted from Lopez’s play), filters the narrative through the eyes of Ana, and Ferrera is perfectly cast, capturing the delicate balance of assertiveness and apprehension that can seem overwhelming to young people caught between childhood and adulthood.  Cardoso also recognizes that Ontiveros is a seasoned veteran with expertise and personality to spare, and makes sure that the radiant actress is given plenty of opportunities to craft a character of enormous depth (equally manipulative and tender, Ontiveros is an absolutely hilarious when she claims to be pregnant).

“Real Women Have Curves” occasionally suffers from its own earnestness, but Ontiveros and Ferrera are abetted by strong supporting players, including Oliu, whose Estela is intriguing enough for her own movie.  Obviously, the film’s focus is fixed on the female characters, but Jorge Cervera Jr. and Felipe de Alba, as Ana’s father and grandfather, are marvelous in their smaller roles, projecting the warmth and compassion needed to temper some of the more outrageous and exasperating shenanigans of Carmen.  While it would have been welcome to explore more of Ana’s internal thoughts, “Real Women Have Curves” maintains an energy and liveliness to match its sincerity.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/20/03. 

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