TRAVELING ON A CITY BUS FROM HER home in East L.A. to her last day at Beverly Hills High School -- a journey three transfers and several worlds apart -- 18-year-old Ana Garcia (America Ferrera, a real find, in her film debut) looks up from her literature text and notices a young Latina woman sitting with her little girl. The kid is throwing a tantrum, but the mother ignores her and sighs, a look of absolute misery on her face. Ana stares for a moment and seems to be making a mental note to herself: "That is not my future."
In the first third of Real Women Have Curves, the accomplished and invigorating debut feature from Colombian-born director Patricia Cardoso that took both the Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance this year, Ana can't stop herself from passing judgment on those around her, strangers and family alike, whose barrio lives seem so narrowly defined, so mundane and, scariest of all, so unexamined. Ana can't stop examining and rethinking her own life, a blessing and a curse that got her into a gifted-students program, but which hasn't yet given her the courage to apply for college. Doing so would be an irrevocable act of defiance against Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros, late of Miguel Arteta's Chuck & Buck and Todd Solondz's Storytelling), her powerhouse of a domineering mother, who berates Ana relentlessly about her excess body fat and, more subtly, for daring to dream of a life that doesn't duplicate her own.
The day after graduation, Carmen drags Ana to work alongside her at the stifling, woefully understaffed dress factory owned by her older daughter, Estela (Ingrid Oliu), who is forever fretting over delivery deadlines, terrified she'll lose a low-paying yet essential contract with an upscale department store. There are seven seamstresses in all, and for a long time, Ana is openly contemptuous of their gossipy good cheer, sure that these women are too stupid to understand they're being exploited. Then, from behind her skin-boiling steam-ironing machine, the bored, bitter prodigy watches and listens as the women, with no trace of self-pity, swap stories of hard times and bad loves, tales that begin to work at Ana's clenched heart.
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SCREENWRITERS GEORGE LaVOO AND Josefina Lopez, adapting Lopez's play, have -- thank goodness -- chosen to underwrite scenes that, in a typical coming-of-age film, would be drenched in melodrama and pathos. Ana loses her virginity without fanfare (but with great charm), and her final, inevitable stand against Carmen turns out to be a tough-minded, true-to-life moment when words fail everyone. The filmmakers find power, too, in the small, quiet moments in which people assert their sense of self, as with the arrival at the house of Mr. Guzman (comedian George Lopez, in a nicely understated performance), Ana's Beverly Hills English teacher, who comes to urge Raul Garcia (Jorge Cervera Jr.) to support his daughter's college dreams. The teacher speaks (subtitled) Spanish to Raul, who suddenly stops him in midsentence. "I speak English," he admonishes, as if to say, "I am as American as you. I too live in two worlds at once."
For Ana's mother, there is no world beyond home and family; she can't fathom Ana's need to leave. It's tempting, at first, to see her as a monster, but Ontiveros, laying claim to the role of a lifetime, portrays a Carmen who is narcissistic and harsh one minute, proud and nurturing the next -- a continuous clash of feelings that, for her family, must be both maddening and irresistible. "It's because I love you," she informs her daughters, "that I make your life so miserable." Such a love, linked to fury, is awesome.
REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES | Directed by PATRICIA CARDOSO | Written by JOSEFINA LOPEZ and GEORGE LaVOO, based on the play by LOPEZ Produced by LaVOO and EFFIE T. BROWN | Released by NEWMARKET FILMS | At selected theaters
LUPE ONTIVEROS AND AMERICA FERRERA HANG FIRE.