The recent TV ad campaign for the sleeper hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding played cleverly on the film's cross-cultural appeal by substituting the words Italian, Jewish and Russian for Greek. The implication: A person from any ethnic or religious background will relate to this story's characters, drama and humor. Real Women Have Curves is another film set in a specific milieu -- a working-class Latino family in the Hispanic section of Los Angeles -- but the emotions the characters experience and the generational and cultural conflicts they face are equally universal.
Originally made for broadcast on HBO, Real Women Have Curves proved such a hit at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, at which it won the Dramatic Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize for the two lead actresses, that the cable-TV giant decided to release it theatrically. Deeper and less broadly comedic than Greek Wedding, the movie focuses on a teenager's attempt to break away from her family and pursue her own dreams.
Ana Garcia (newcomer America Ferrera, in a terrific performance) is a first-generation American who lives in a modest house with her parents, siblings and beloved grandfather. Ana's soft-spoken, nonjudgmental father, Raul (Jorge Cevera Jr.), is a gardener; her disapproving, aggressively critical mother, Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros), works as a seamstress in a small dressmaking factory that is owned by Ana's shy but highly capable older sister, the dutiful Estela (Ingrid Oliu). Estela long ago surrendered to her mother's sharp tongue and domineering personality and never crosses or speaks back to Carmen. Not so Ana, who seems to have inherited her mother's willful temperament in addition to her father's sensitivity and compassion.
The day after graduating from high school, Ana is expected to start working full-time. Instead, to her mother's horror, she quits her loathsome after-school waitress job. Although she doesn't know how she could possibly afford it, Ana dreams of going to college. When her supportive teacher tries to intercede on her behalf, Carmen tells him in no uncertain terms to leave the family alone. Carmen, who had to quit school at age thirteen to help support her own mother and father, resents what she sees as Ana's selfishness. To Carmen's traditional way of thinking, Ana's role in life is to get married, have children and contribute financially to the family's well-being.
Torn between her loyalty to her family and a desire to forge a different path in life, Ana reluctantly takes a job in her sister's factory. There, alongside her mother and six or seven other women, she makes stylish evening gowns that none of them could afford to buy -- and, at sizes 6 and 8, not one of them would be able to wear. On top of that, the women are paid meager wages for making dresses that will sell for hundreds of dollars. Yet none of the women seems to have noticed the many ironies of the situation. "You're sweating for Bloomingdale's," exclaims an exasperated Ana.
One of the strengths of Real Women Have Curves is that it isn't about just one thing; it is about many things. A coming-of-age drama centered around a mother-daughter conflict, it also explores the immigrant experience; the battle to accept oneself, imperfections and all; and the importance of personal dignity. Adapted from a stage play by Josefina Lopez -- which was based on her own experiences in her sister's factory -- the screenplay was written by Lopez and George LaVoo, who also served as one of the film's producers.
Director Patricia Cardoso reveals an incredibly sure hand in her feature-film debut. A native of Colombia, she had previously directed several short films, winning a student Academy Award for one of them. Her compassion towards the characters does not blind her to their less admirable qualities, and she elicits strong, honest performances from everyone.
Ontiveros (so memorable in both Chuck&Buck and Storytelling) faces a particularly difficult task here: to present a woman who is rigidly demanding, judgmental and critical to the point of cruelty, yet somehow isn't completely despicable. Carmen's motives are not evil -- she loves her children and truly believes that she knows what is best for them -- but it is easier to forgive her than it is to like her. Not many actresses would have wanted to remain so toxic.
In her first major role, Ferrera is amazing, conveying the contradictory forces that make Ana at once insecure and confident, awkward and self-possessed, resentful but compassionate -- or respectful -- enough not to give in to her anger. It is a completely natural performance. To top it all off, she and Ontiveros are completely believable as mother and daughter. They seem to have spent a lifetime together.