Self-respect, self-confidence and self-empowerment are the rah-rah-rah themes of "Real Women Have Curves," a winning, if a little pandering, coming-of-age indie about a East Los Angeles Latina with a vexatious mother, a generous figure and an admirable amount of gumption.
Inspired by Josefina Lopez's autobiographical underground stage hit that premiered at San Francisco's Teatro de la Esperanza in 1990, the film centers on 18-year-old Ana (talented and appealing newcomer America Ferrera), a girl whose intelligence and ambition have always met with frustrating discouragement from her traditional family.
Freshly graduated from a Beverly Hills high school that she rode two busses every day to attend, Ana is being encouraged to apply for scholarships by a teacher who sees her potential. But her meddling, small-minded mother (the fantastic Lupe Ontiveros, "Chuck and Buck") is determined that Ana should become an additional family breadwinner by working in her sister's struggling dress factory.
Ana's journey is not a stereotypical one of self-discovery, as she's already comfortable enough in her own skin to be proud of her Rubenesque physique, poised enough to stand up for herself and sharp enough to toy a little with a nervous boy she likes. When he says, "You have a really beautiful face," Ana replies, "Just my face?" Instead the movie is about a young woman flustered by indecision at a crossroads in her life. Loyalty or personal growth? Family or future? Ana knows who she is. She's just not sure where she's going.
The subtly sensual Ferrera lends this character a lot of depth and dimension. She's highly intelligent, more worldly than her age or circumstance would indicate, and sweet but cautiously cynical -- especially when it comes to her overbearingly obstinate mom, who scolds Ana over her weight even though she's in such bad shape herself that she can't waddle half a block without getting winded. It's the vividness of her performance, and those of Ontiveros and Ingrid Oliu (as her sister) that help the movie overcome its message-heavy, After School Special trappings.
Directed by rookie Patricia Cardoso, "Real Women" -- which won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival -- also has its fair share of "my first movie" red flags. There are structural flaws (some plot payoffs are set up but never revisited), indulgent class- and weight-struggle sermons (the sister's factory get $18 for dresses a department store sells to skinny, rich women for $600), elementary empowerment messages ("Look how beautiful we are," Ana exclaims in a cellulite-comparing scene with other factory workers) and lots of rhetorical dialogue.
"I can't believe I'm leaving in two weeks to go to teacher's college," says the wholesome boyfriend to whom Ana will nonchalantly lose her virginity because, as she admonishes her old-fashioned mother, "Why is a woman's virginity the only thing that's important? A woman has thoughts and ideas of her own!"
But as with the current rudimentary small-budget smash "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," such problems and oversimplifications are easily forgiven -- chalked up to enthusiastic inexperience -- because the film is just so gratifying, endearing and enabling.
More importantly, "Real Women" successfully engrosses you in Ana's teenage dilemmas. When her parents selfishly, almost absurdly, balk at a full scholarship offer from Columbia University, you feel even more indignant than she does. What kind of family would refuse their kid a $40,000 education for free?
But it's through such events that Ana grows and finds her direction, with genuinely fulfilling results.
Run time: 90 mins
In Theaters: Friday 8th November 2002
Box Office USA: $5.7M
Distributed by: HBO Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 83%
Fresh: 70 Rotten: 14
IMDB: 7.0 / 10
Director: Patricia Cardoso
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