Real Women Have Curves
Director : Patricia Cardoso
Screenplay : George LaVoo and Josefina Lopez (based on the play by Josefina Lopez)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : America Ferrera (Ana), Lupe Ontiveros (Carmen), Ingrid Oliu (Estela), George Lopez (Mr. Guzman), Brian Sites (Jimmy), Soledad St. Hilaire (Pancha), Lourdes Perez (Rosali), Jorge Cervera Jr. (Raul), Felipe De Alba (Grandfather)
In Real Women Have Curves, 18-year-old newcomer America Ferrera does a lot of exasperated sighing and angry eye-rolling as Ana, a bright and ambitious young woman who has just graduated from high school and has her whole life ahead of her. There’s one major obstacle in her path, though: her conservative-minded and utterly unbending mother, Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros), who thinks that, because she went straight to work as a teenager and hasn’t stopped in the 38 years since, her daughter should do the same.
The story, set in East Los Angeles, was based on a play by Josefina Lopez, who penned the screenplay along with George LaVoo. Director Patricia Cardoso establishes the texture and rhythms of life in East L.A., carefully balancing the toil of the blue-collar work endured by many of the characters with the strength of their heritage and sense of pride. Life for most of the characters isn’t easy, but the film doesn’t sink into pat sympathy and despondence. Rather, it shows life for what it is—sometimes difficult, sometimes exhilarating.
As Ana graduates from high school, she spends the summer pondering what to do with her life. At the behest of an enthusiastic teacher (George Lopez) at the Beverly Hills high school she attends via a multi-bus commute, she has applied to college and has a strong chance of getting into Columbia University with a full scholarship, thus opening up a world of opportunity not available to the other members of her family. Her mother and father, Raul (Jorge Cervera Jr.), aren’t enthralled with the idea of her leaving to go to college. For one, they see it as breaking up the family, which is central to their sense of identity. Secondly, they feel that Ana has a duty to help out her older, unmarried sister, Estela (Ingrid Oliu), who owns a small dress factory that is only a few steps above a sweatshop (she is paid $18 per dress that are then sold for $600 at Bloomingdale’s). Yet, Estela and the other women who work there feel a great deal of pride in what they do, and it is expected that Ana should feel the same.
Ana is bitter, but resigned to her lot in life. She knows she’s capable of more, which is what causes her to act out against her family at times. She is also drawn to a fellow just-graduated senior named Jimmy (Brian Sites), perhaps because he understands and respects her dreams and desires in a way her family members cannot. This is particularly true of her mother, who thinks that Ana should follow directly in her own footsteps. Carmen is the type who is fond of spinning melodramatic stories, all of which somehow end with the moral that daughters should listen to their mothers. Carmen’s matriarchal stubbornness is matched only by Ana’s teenage willfulness, and it isn’t hard to see that sparks will fly.
At its core, Real Women Have Curves is a bittersweet dramedy about the conflict between an aging mother whose worldview is firmly rooted in a traditional past and her rapidly maturing daughter who is defined primarily by her sense of modern womanhood. What makes the film work so well is that it conveys with moving clarity the doggedness of these two women’s worldviews without minimizing or disparaging either one. Granted, the film clearly sides with Ana and her view of womanhood as being defined by intellect and independence, rather than an absolute and unquestioned commitment to family and labor.
Yet, even then, it never demonizes Carmen, no matter how irrational her behavior may be. Make no mistake, Carmen can be ruthless: She constantly berates Ana about how she needs to lose weight and how she is a disgrace to the family because she doesn’t work hard enough. But, beneath the cruelty of her comments, Lupe Ontiveros (who played the much put-upon maid in Todd Solodnz’s Storytelling) always suggests Carmen’s inner pain, longing, and, above all, jealousy. She’s not a cruel woman, but rather a sad one who has dedicated her life to something and can’t stand to see her daughter turn her back on it in pursuit of something else, even if that something else is a noble and worthy goal.
Ontiveros’ performance is beautifully nuanced, layering anger on top of love on top of bitterness, and her scenes with America Ferrera have the spit and tension of a real mother-daughter conflict. They don’t get along at all, but it’s only because they’re so much alike. One gets the feeling that, if they had been born in different decades, each would do what the other is doing with the same fierce commitment and unyielding sense of rightness.
Real Women Have Curves doesn’t offer an easy answers. It has a positive ending, but it realistically accepts that such an ending has its price. For Ana to break away from her family when they don’t want her to go is not an easy thing, but the confident smile we see on her face at the end suggests that the pain involved is worth the suffering for the future it will offer her.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick