A delightful coming-of-age comedy-drama about a Mexican-American teen struggling against her environment and the expectations of her overbearing mother as she attempts to forge her own path in life, “Real Women Have Curves” represents both an empowering entertainment for women and a vindication for all the zaftig girls oppressed by the tyranny of the perfect body. Big-hearted and refreshingly generous toward all of its characters, this winning adaptation of Josefina Lopez’s play has drawn one of the more rousing audience responses of any competition feature in Sundance. While HBO broadcast set for later this year reduces the chance of U.S. theatrical exposure, the film has distinct potential to cross beyond Hispanic markets and reach a broader public.
As plump 18-year-old Ana (America Ferrera) prepares to graduate from high school, she faces the choice of pursuing a college degree and a life of her own or remaining bound to her family and taking work in the East L.A. dress factory run by her sister Estela (Ingrid Oliu). Her guilt-inducing mother, Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros), favors the latter course and maps out a traditional path of marriage and family for Ana.
When Estela loses four seamstresses and has trouble meeting deadlines, Ana reluctantly signs on for the summer to help, secretly applying for a college scholarship and putting long-term decisions on hold. Her stint at the factory opens her eyes to the sacrifice, dedication and talent of her older sister, whom she previously undervalued, and to the injustices of an exploitative marketplace that pays $18 apiece for $600 dresses.
While pitching in to help Estela, Ana shrugs off her mother’s constant barbs about her hefty figure and, in an uplifting scene, liberates her co-workers from self-consciousness about their own less-than-perfect bodies. At the same time, Ana finds the strength to take the future firmly into her own hands, even assuming control of her sexual initiation with a schoolmate (Brian Sites).
Two captivatingly drawn women and two truly winning performances help distinguish the material, which is handled with warmth, assurance and genuine affection for the characters and milieu by first-time feature director Patricia Cardoso.
Having frequently sparkled in supporting roles, Ontiveros’ superb comic timing is no surprise, humorously lording it over her family while trying to convince herself that her advanced menopause is really a late-in-life pregnancy. The actress strikes an endearing, dignified balance for Carmen as both a manipulative monster and a loving mother.
Relative newcomer Ferrera also is remarkable, her sensitive perf revealing the internally battling forces of strength, resolve, defiance, duty and loyalty that shape and color her character.
Adapted by playwright Lopez and producer George LaVoo, the very satisfying script provides sweet humor, warmly observed relationships, a strongly conveyed sense of the importance of family and community but also of independence and individuality, and a lively sparring match between traditional and emancipated mentalities.
It’s a tribute to the writers that while Ana’s character frequently rails against attitudes and expectations surrounding Latina women, there’s no sense of a laborious feminist agenda behind her dialogue. Simply shot in clean, sharp colors, the piece is successfully opened out for the screen, its stage origins only intermittently evident, most notably in the hilarious set piece in which the factory women learn to love their love handles.