‘Real Women’ hopes to throw audiences a curve

For those who do not tire of directors with an agenda, Patricia Cardoso’s debut film, “Real Women Have Curves,” is both complex and relevant. As the title suggests, the picture focuses on the trials and tribulations that a young woman faces while seeking pride in her appearance and establishing her identity. The film’s freshness depends on the introduction of other issues, however. The protagonist, Ana Garcia (America Ferrera), is preoccupied with more than just her body.

The film opens with Ana using yesterday’s newspaper to wash the windows of the appropriately modest East Los Angeles home she shares with her family. Her father, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico hoping for a better future, works with Ana’s cousins as a gardener; her sister Estela (Ingrid Oliu), a talented and hardworking dressmaker, owns a factory that manufactures $600 dresses and sells them to Bloomingdale’s for $18 apiece. Though Ana’s family realizes almost every stereotype usually attributed to Hispanic immigrants, Ana has been lucky: She was selected to attend Beverly Hills High School. The summer after her high school graduation, however, her parents’ expectations and her teacher’s hopes clash: Should Ana work in her sister’s factory, or should she attempt a college education?

Cardoso presents Ana with the challenge of surmounting the socio-economic divide between herself and her elite classmates and of bridging the cultural gap between the United States and Mexico, all while trying to tolerate her eccentric, melodramatic, hypochondriac mother, Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros). No, “Real Women Have Curves” is not just about curves.

Cardoso easily and successfully addresses each of these issues; but, as the audience soon comes to understand, she has difficulty tackling them. Including a variety of issues at the expense of exploring one sufficiently costs the film depth and, at times, makes it feel contrived.

Further subtracting from the film is Ana’s temperament. She is both aggressive and idealistic, but spends the majority of the two hours whining or rolling her eyes. She is likable, however, and it is her mother’s persistent criticism of her figure that provokes much of her insolence. Ana’s whining may be annoying, but it serves as the only evidence of her being affected by the badgering. While the film pretends to document Ana’s growing appreciation for her body, never apparent is the emotional struggle that supplements her original discontent. In fact, it remains unclear whether Ana ever suffered from viewing her body unfavorably. In this case, most of the pain seems to belong to her mother, who worries that Ana will never find a husband.

The attention Cardoso pays to the relationship between mother and daughter is one of the film’s highlights. Carmen supplies much of the film’s humor – in the middle of the film she becomes convinced, despite her doctor’s denials, that she is pregnant – as well as much of its conflict. It is Carmen who makes the decision that Ana will not attend college because she believes that it is finally Ana’s turn to work. Ana thus spends the summer alongside her mother, ironing dresses in Estela’s factory, reconciling her moral opposition to sweatshop labor (a product of her Beverly Hills education) with necessity and committing herself to the values of her mother’s generation.

While Estela fights to maintain the morale of her employees in the presence of Ana’s cynicism, and Carmen strives to instill in Ana a sense of appreciation for honest work, Ana teaches the women of the factory to recognize themselves as being more than just bodies, but as people with unique thoughts, dreams and desires. In one of the film’s strongest scenes, Ana refuses to cope with the heat inside the factory any longer, strips down to her underwear and encourages the others to do the same. As the women compare cellulite and stretch marks, Cardoso’s message, that “real women have curves,” loses its triteness and gains force.

The film’s male characters exist as Ana’s source of strength, rather than contributing to her self-consciousness. Her English teacher devotes his summer to ensuring that Ana is admitted to Columbia University on a full scholarship, courtesy of a friend in the admissions office. Her father gives his blessing for her to attend over her mother’s wishes, and her grandfather urges her to “find her gold.” While Ana’s goals realign, she also finds a boy, Jimmy, who appreciates her for who she is, and respects her body as it is; thankfully, she finds it in herself to enjoy it.

The film’s triumphant ending is only offset by the incomplete transformations of both Ana and her mother. Ana’s failure to evidence much struggle along the way makes her success predictable and less exciting, while the obstinacy of her mother makes Ana’s success less fulfilling. In the end, although each character emerges with new appreciation for what others have taught her, no one has really changed.

In the same sense, it is difficult to walk away from “Real Women Have Curves” feeling changed. Still, the opportunity to watch strong and curvaceous women defy their insecurities on-screen is a rare one, one that should be taken advantage of by all who desire an afternoon of entertainment and relief from societal stereotypes.