Hidden Gem: “Real Women Have Curves” (2002)

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Photo Courtesy of IMDb

Lupe Ontiveros and America Ferrera star in “Real Women Have Curves”. The film was released on Jan. 13, 2002.

By Syd Slobodnik, staff writer

Director Patricia Cardosa’s “Real Women Have Curves” (2002) is a unique little film that isn’t in the least bit sexist. It’s such a rarity in Hollywood; a Latina filmmaker is not often given the opportunity to work with another Latina screenwriter, Josefina Lopez, who was adapting her own 1990 stage play.

Set in East Los Angeles in 1987, the Chicana voice of this film is clear and central to the plot. It’s about 18-year-old Ana Garcia who is struggling with her ambitions for pursuing a life in college and balancing the family pressures to work, get married and have children. Her domineering mother, Carmen, wants her to eventually run the family’s dressmaking business with her older sister. America Ferrera, Lupe Ontiveros and Ingrid Oliu star in this family drama that was clearly overlooked in its initial release nearly 20 years ago.

This slice-of-life tale, co-adapted by Georges LaVoo, concerns Ana’s (Ferrera) final weeks as a senior at Beverly Hills High School, while she tries to please her mother by helping out in her sister’s struggling business. Ana’s teacher Mr. Guzman (George Lopez) strongly encourages her to complete college applications, telling her, “You’re a smart woman with something to contribute to this world.” Jimmy (Brian Sites), a fellow college-bound classmate, shows interest in Ana, who although somewhat shy and self-conscious, rather likes his attention.

But Ana is constantly belittled by her mother (Ontiveros) who calls her “gordita,” her “little fat one.” After quitting a job at a local burger joint, Ana starts working at her sister’s factory, Estella’s Fashion Design. Working with nearly a dozen other Hispanic women, she makes elegant dresses that are sold to LA department stores. The thoughtful Ana quickly realizes her sister is getting manipulated and exploited by the system if she gets a mere $18 per dress when stores like Bloomingdale’s can sell them for nearly $600 an item. Ana’s father Raul, who works as a landscaper, is more diminutive and doesn’t challenge many of Carmen’s wishes.

Ana’s mother is a simple woman who believes in the stories she constantly watches in Spanish speaking soap operas, holds all sorts of superstitious beliefs and espouses endless traditional ideas. One day Ana challenges her mom by asking, “Why does a woman’s virginity all that matters to a man?”

Thankfully Ana has an ally in her grandfather who also encourages her to do more with her life. He even tells her parents they will be going out to the movies one evening, when actually he’ll be her cover to meet Jimmy for a first date. On their date, Jimmy sincerely compliments her saying, “You have a really beautiful face.” This makes the slightly embarrassed Ana happy and even happier when he ends the evening with a wonderful kiss before her “abuelo” meets Ana to take her home.

Weeks later, Ana and Jimmy spend a joyous evening of guiltless passion as Ana becomes literally transformed by her beautiful experience. Shortly before graduation, Mr. Guzman arrives at the Garcias’ home and joyously announces Ana was accepted by Columbia University on a full scholarship. Her parents don’t want her to go, but Ana insists.

America Ferrera, who had just turned 18 herself, is truly outstanding in her debut performance. She captures the right blend of innocence and self-determination ever so subtly, showing the emotional swings of a young woman trying to determine a path to a future.

I wholeheartedly concur with Roger Ebert’s opinions from his original 2002 review when he said “Real Women Have Curves” is enormously entertaining for moviegoers of any age (it won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2002). But for young women who are insecure because they don’t look like skinny models, this film is a breath of fresh air.