Film Review Archive

 

Real Women Have Curves
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

Real Women Have Curves, directed by Patricia Cardoso, is based on a play of the same name by Josefina Lopez, who plays Veronica in the movie and who co-wrote the screenplay along with George LaVoo. It's playing now at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz. Be sure not to miss it.

Ana-played by America Ferrera-is the youngest in an East LA household comprised of her mother Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros), her father (Jorge Cervera Jr.), her older sister Estela (Ingrid Olin), her grandfather (Felipe de Alba), and her cousins and their mother. As the youngest, she's the one her mother both dotes on and needles incessantly. She's also the one who's the most privileged in the family, her good grades earning her a place at Beverly Hills High rather than a spot next to her mom and sister at the dress-making "sweatshop" her sister owns.

The story takes place just after high school graduation. Ana's teacher wants her to go to college, but Ana's mother thinks it's about time she go to work and nags at her about her weight because she secretly hopes that, unlike Estela, Ana will get married soon.

After several stand-offs, and as a result of Carmen's consummate guilt-tripping techniques, Ana does, in fact, go to work in the dress shop, and it's an eye-opening experience for the girl. This coming-of-age tale could, then, be understood as Ana's realization that her family struggles hard doing back-breaking work for the modestly comfortable life they live, and that her mother and her sister also, like her, have had to overcome a variety of disappointments in their lives. But this is not a moralistic story: it does not want to crush Ana's youthful sense of entitlement and free-spirited ambition with a lesson about the value of sometimes unrewarding hard work. Instead it trains its eye and our attention carefully, gently, and respectfully, on a set of contradictions: between self and family, between class aspirations and cultural loyalty, between self-assertion and self-sacrifice. What the director and these very fine actors are able to do is convey ambivalence, the way conflicting emotions and claims wrestle powerfully with each other and offer up no easy, reductive solutions to dilemmas that, in real life, are complex and difficult to resolve.

So, at first we are tempted either to side with Carmen (and perhaps Estela), regarding Ana as a stubborn, rude, stuck-up teenager; or we side with Ana, and see Carmen as a narcissistic, critical, self-absorbed and co-dependent possessive mother bent on ruining her bright and beautiful daughter's life. But Real Women really doesn't allow us to remain in either of those positions: the women in this family are complex, wounded, good people fiercely bound to each other even as they jostle for the emotional upper hand.

The men in this movie are less well-developed-and they are fairy-tale-ishly benign, which, nevertheless, turns out to be refreshing in a movie so focused on powerful difficult women. I was grateful that the father-and a boyfriend who emerges in Ana's life-were decent, kind, and loving people. The relationship between Ana and her grandfather is priceless.

Real Women works hard to be a movie that takes on difficult issues without assaulting its audience, either with violence or melodrama, tragedy or miracle. Mostly, it succeeds, allowing us to be interested and deeply moved without feeling manipulated. But, as the portrait of the men and Ana's success suggest, it does so by idealizing some of its characters, so much so that we are left wondering whether Ana really is prepared to go off into the cruel harsh world she will surely encounter. To dignify its characters, then, Real Women risks making poverty appear a bit less difficult than it most certainly must be.

This is a wonderful jewel of a movie. America Ferrera breaks your heart and takes your breath away. Real Women is funny, serious, and smart. And it's great to see "real" women, who really do have curves and complicated feelings and plenty of ambition. It's also good to see a film made and acted by Latinas and Latinos that treats cultural, racial, and economic situatedness with respect and grace.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.