Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 24, 2002
Real Women Have Curves
Starring America Ferrera and Lupe Ontiveros. Directed by Patricia Cardoso. Written by George LaVoo and Josefina Lopez, based on Lopez’s play. Rated PG-13.
Y Tu Mamá También

The film version of a popular play reminds us that Real Women Have Curves.


Josefina Lopez’s play Real Women Have Curves debuted in San Francisco in 1990 and has been popular with bilingual theater groups ever since. It comes to film at the best possible time, during a mini-resurgence of so-called plus-size female stars in entertainment. Whether this is only a fad or a sign that our culture’s adopting a healthier attitude toward women’s bodies, I’m sure I don’t know. Either way, though, it’s a refreshing change.

The movie begins on the last day of high school for Ana Garcia (America Ferrera), who lives in East L.A. and takes two buses every day to get to Beverly Hills High School. A working-class girl who’s smart and motivated enough to crack that school’s wealthy and overachieving student body should be going to college, but Ana’s plans are on hold. Her mother Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros), who owns and works in a factory that stitches together designer dresses for Bloomingdale’s, stands in her way. Mamacita is a monster who calls Ana lazy for studying all the time and insists that she get a job in the factory. “It’s not fair,” Mama tells her husband in Spanish. “I’ve been working since I was 13. Ana is 18. It’s her turn.” She also constantly disparages Ana for being fat, even though she herself isn’t exactly supermodel-thin.

First-time director Patricia Cardoso brings a workaday style to the material. The low-budget realism probably comes from the fact that the film was originally conceived as a tv movie for HBO. Cardoso’s lack of experience actually works to her advantage. Untied to theatrical conventions, she’s free to shape the play into a movie. As a result, this piece isn’t stagey, and only rarely are its roots in the theater visible.

That same lack of experience, though, prevents her from lightening the play’s heavy-handedness. The themes are all illustrated for us through the most obvious ironies (the dresses made in the factory will be worn by women much thinner than the ones sewing them), and Mama’s oppression of her daughter could have been shown with a few lines of dialogue instead of scene after scene. The film’s message can be burdensome. This is where My Big Fat Greek Wedding has the better idea — the heroine’s weight is simply accepted and taken for granted.

However, Real Women Have Curves has an edge of its own. The little comedy about the big Greek family is cozy and eternally warm and probably owes its considerable box-office success to its inoffensiveness. This movie is truer to life, unafraid to explore deeper issues and leave its main conflict unresolved. Two excellent actors flesh out this tortured relationship: Ontiveros is a formidable, implacable presence, and the mentally acute America Ferrera is a real find here, in her film debut. If anything saves this film from being too ponderous, it’s this story about how difficult it can be to find your own way and still please your mother.

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