Real Women Have Curves

The best scene in “Real Women Have Curves” — the one most likely to uplift its female audience and get some respect from its male audience, if it exists — comes in the third act, when four Mexican-American women of varying sizes strip down to their underwear and compare stretch marks. That accomplished, they remain undressed and get back to work in the sweatshop that employs them, happier now that they’ve liberated themselves both literally and figuratively.

I don’t know whether such a thing is likely to occur in real life, at least not in a manner that is quite so dramatically perfect, but I do know that it defines the film. “Real Women Have Curves” is a female empowerment movie, but not a militant, angry one. Instead, it feels pleasant and authentic; it’s easy to see why it was voted audience favorite at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.

Directed by Patricia Cardoso and based on Josefina Lopez’s play (she and George LaVoo wrote the screenplay), “Real Women Have Curves” focuses on Ana Garcia (America Ferrera), a Los Angeles-born girl who is at odds with her Mexican heritage. Her mother, Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros), is over-protective and traditional. We never hear her tell Ana she can’t date boys, but Ana seems to know it instinctively, sneaking around with a polite, gentle lad from school named Jimmy (Brian Sites) rather than asking if it’s OK.

Carmen and and Ana’s father (Jorge Cervera Jr.) insist that rather than go to college upon graduation, Ana should stay in town and work for her sister Estela (Ingrid Oliu) at her dress-making shop. Family is more important than education, and if anything’s more important than family, it’s getting married to a good man, and soon. (Estela, at 30, is already considered a lost cause in that department.)

Ana carries a few extra pounds, but is certainly not “fat,” though her mother seems to have picked up the American belief that any woman more than 5 pounds overweight is a whale. She points out Ana’s “problem” frequently. But isn’t Carmen overweight, too? “Yes,” she answers. “But I already HAVE a husband.”

If you have ever been to the parts of Los Angeles depicted here, you will immediately recognize that “Real Women Have Curves” was filmed on location. The film breathes with Hispanic culture, and the dialogue is a perfectly authentic mix of English and Spanish, as befitting the characters.

The Latino culture has been captured with all its spice and flavor, aided immeasurably by the honest, non-showy performances. The Sundance jury made up a special prize for the acting in this film, specifically for Ferrera and Ontiveros, and it was well-deserved. The love, conflict and jealousy that exists between mothers and daughters is present in these portrayals. It’s often comic and often dramatic, but always believable.

B+ (1 hr., 26 min.; PG-13, one F-word and some other profanity, some mild sexuality.)