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Sunday, December 01, 2002

Real Women Have Curves
Don’t let the title put you off. Real Women Have Curves, which I saw today, is astonishingly free of “ism” rhetoric or cheap points-scoring. Its most outstanding feature is its honesty—rather than making political statements about size-ism or sweatshops or class mobility, the movie presents a slice of life that feels very real. And that’s the most effective statement of all.

It’s a family story. Ana is just about to finish high school, and although her Mexican immigrant family lives in East Los Angeles, she got into and bused to Beverly Hills High School. Her experience of life is very different from that of her classmates—they’re already thinking ahead to their Ph.D.s, while Ana’s mother wants her to go work in her sister’s sewing factory, where Mexican women piece together gorgeous prom dresses. Ana’s mom and dad want her to go to work, but her English teacher, also Latino, thinks she can go far and encourages her to apply for college.

You probably think you already know how it’s all going to work out—and maybe you’re right—but the director, Patricia Cardoso, and writers Josefina Lopez, who wrote the play the movie’s based on, and George LaVoo, who adapted it for the screen, avoid most of the stereotypes and clichés they could so easily have succumbed to. Ana doesn’t have any private space, but this is just shown, not harped on. Mr. Guzman (played by George Lopez) nags Ana to write her college entrance essay, but we don’t get the tired old voice-over read-though of it, we get to guess what she wrote about. Ana’s sister Estela has to really struggle to keep her business going, and perhaps she’s being exploited and in turn exploiting her own workers, but maybe she’s learning the skills she needs to succeed, so that she too can become like the woman who pays her $18 for each dress that sells for $600.

But the most impressive slice of honesty is the portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship. Carmen, played to perfection by Lupe Ontiveros, is difficult. She’s rude and melodramatic and often cruel (she constantly chides Ana about her weight—one of the hard-to-believe plot elements is that this harping wouldn’t bother a teenage girl, no matter how strong-minded). This isn’t an aspirational mom beating the odds to get her girl a slice of the pie; this is a scared, sometimes vindictive woman who’s tired out and impatient and wants to get her daughters married off, while despairing that she ever will. She isn’t a bad person, but she isn’t nice either. She loves her daughter, but she has a very weird way of showing it. Perhaps Ana is a little too full of herself, a little stuck up. As crazy as it seems, a summer of sweating over a steam iron seems to do her some good.

America Ferrera, in her first movie role, is amazing as Ana. The Boston Globe’s film critic gushed, “I have seen the future of Hollywood movie stardom, and its name is America Ferrera.” Later in the review he admitted America “isn't ready to celebrate a Honduran-American teenager with a figure out of Rubens,” but it should be. Ferrera has the enviable ability to seem natural and “unactorly” and totally convincing at the same time (Ingrid Oliu as Estela doesn’t manage this trick, even though she has years of acting experience, but she still seems really right for the part). In one memorable scene Ferrera (and several other actresses) strips down to her skivvies, and it’s sort of shocking because it seems too true to happen in the movies. She’s zaftig and beautiful and sexy and way too real for Hollywood.