Phat Girlz

“Phat Girlz” is a sincere, good-hearted movie told from an uncommon perspective: that of a fat woman. The fact that it’s very obviously a first effort, was cheaply shot and badly edited and moves at an ungainly pace is almost irrelevant. You want to like it anyway, just for what it’s trying to do.

The comedian Mo’Nique stars as Jazmin Biltmore (love that name!), a plus-sized gal who works at a clothing store and dreams of becoming a fashion designer. The clothes currently available for big ladies are boring, but if someone would sponsor Jazmin’s line, fat girls would finally have some options that make them look sexy and stylish.

In the meantime, however, Jazmin has her own issues to deal with. She tries all the fad diets but has a hard time sticking to them, and society treats her as an outcast. Here the film exaggerates matters a bit. For example, it’s unlikely that any fast food employee would say, after receiving a particularly large order, “You want a garbage bag to carry all that food out?,” or that a loan officer would tell a customer who mentioned she has trouble getting dates that it’s because she’s too fat. Certainly American culture has a thinness obsession and a prejudice against fatness, but it’s not THAT pronounced.

Still, the movie sets it up that way so that Mo’Nique can use her sassy retorts (and occasionally her fists) to dispense justice and get cheers from the audience. It’s one-dimensional and transparent, but sometimes it works.

Jazmin wins a trip to a five-star resort in Palm Springs and brings her chubby co-worker Stacey (Kendra C. Johnson) and super-thin cousin Mia (Joyful Drake) along. There they meet several gorgeous doctors from Nigeria, where bulky women are prized and thin girls are viewed as medical oddities, Nigeria apparently being the bizarro America. For the first time, Jazmin and Stacey are made to feel desirable and beautiful, and things begin to change for both women’s self-esteem.

What I like about Nnegest Likké’s screenplay is that she realistically captures the paradoxes in being a fat woman in modern culture. Jazmin wants to be respected as a big girl, but she wants to be thin, too. She’s stuck between wanting to be happy with who she is and wanting to change. She frequently expresses her hatred for “skinny b******,” but woe betide anyone who calls her a fat b****! Her tearful frustration at the film’s midpoint is something anyone who’s had a weight problem can relate to, and I’m frankly surprised by the quality of Mo’Nique’s performance there.

What I don’t like about Likké’s work in the director’s chair is that she seems to have no sense of rhythm or timing — crucial elements when your goal is to produce comedy. She’s also allowed the film to be edited (by Zack Arnold) so that some scenes go on for too long, and so that a lot of shots don’t match up (e.g., someone is smiling, but when we cut to a different angle, she has a different facial expression), all marks of a first-time filmmaker.

Overall, the film, which was shot on very cheap-looking digital video, feels raw and amateurish. But it earns a few laughs, and I can honestly say I liked the Jazmin character and felt invested in her search for fulfillment. Is that enough to compensate for the movie’s many technical and structural flaws? Is it a bad movie that has some very good elements, or a good movie with some bad elements? I’m recommending it, barely, because I think it speaks pretty well to a certain audience and does so from the heart.

B- (1 hr., 39 min.; PG-13, some sexual dialogue and some sexual situations, moderate profanity.)