If there’s any justice in the cinematic world, Patricia Cardoso’s little film will induce the viewers who keep going to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” week after week to give it a try instead. “Real Women Have Curves” is also based on a stage original, by co-screenwriter Josefina Lopez, and it’s an equally affectionate portrait of family life, though the ethnic background in this case is Latino; but it’s a much better picture–funnier, more emotionally genuine and far less cartoonish. Unfortunately, it will probably suffer the fate of most small-scaled independent productions and be largely ignored by the mass audience. To be sure, though it’s mostly in English it has an occasional subtitle; but that’s hardly a reason for anyone to be afraid of it. If you’ll just give it a chance, the picture should both amuse and move you.
Essentially “Real Women” is a mother-and-daughter story in which both characters come across as credible and complex people. The girl is Ana (America Ferrera), the chubby, bright daughter of a hardworking landscaper, and a high school senior. Her mother, Carmen (the always-impressive Lupe Ontiveros), works in the small dress-making factory of Ana’s older sister Estela (Ingrid Oliu), and insists that Ana will do so after graduating as well, although her supportive teacher (George Lopez) believes she has college potential. The focus of the story is on Ana’s rebelliousness and Carmen’s efforts to control her, often in ways designed to humiliate.
What’s most impressive about the film is how honest and complicated it is. Lopez and George LaVoo draw amazingly full, not always likable, portraits of Ana and Carmen. The daughter is smart, but also often willful, condescending and dismissive, and Ferrera catches the various aspects of her character nicely. Carmen, meanwhile, acts the traditional mother, but it becomes increasingly clear that while she might love her daughters, she also feels compelled to dominate them and resists the thought that they might be able to avoid the hardships she’s endured. She also has a terrible fear of growing old, something that also explains her reluctance to let her children go. Ontiveros, a still-underappreciated treasure of an actress, brings her to life with enormous skill; in lesser hands Carmen might have seemed little more than a monster, but here she becomes a strangely sympathetic person despite her frequent cruelty. Oliu gives a remarkably sensitive performance as Ana’s older sibling–a scene in which she and Ana go to an employer to ask for an advance is beautifully drawn, and puts the lie to some idealistic notion of female solidarity–and Soledad St. Hilaire, Lourdes Perez and Lina Acosta are first-rate as her seamstresses. The men in the background come across as uniformly likable and decent, too. Lopez is all helpful earnestness as the teacher, and Jorge Cevera, Jr. and Felipe De Alba are quietly warm as Ana’s father and grandpa. As Jimmy, the fellow student with whom Ana has a brief, secretive fling, Brian Sites–who (dark hair apart) looks astonishingly like the young Anthony Michael Hall (“The Breakfast Club” vintage, say)–does a charming job; one might assume the relationship will end badly, but once again the script confounds expectations in the best possible way.
Technically “Real Women Have Curves” is adequate but little more; but while the picture is a trifle ragged about the edges, Cardoso’s way with her actors goes far to compensate. To be sure, things do go a bit awry in an overly-broad sequence in which the women in the factory compare their heft and take off their clothes in a show of camaraderie to beat the sweatshop heat, but that sort of lapse into the obvious–designed to play to the balcony, and likely to be a real crowd-pleasing moment–is happily rare. For the most part this is a sharp, shrewd, and observant portrait of the pains of adolescence and complexity of the parent-child relationship–a film that deals with serious matters while (if you’ll forgive the pun) avoiding heaviness in doing so. It’s a small gem of a movie.