According to the makers of “Real Women Have Curves,” the Spanish word pendejo means “jerk.” But looking past that egregious, euphemistic inaccuracy, the movie does succeed in its truths, in its stark, realistic portrayal of a girl becoming a woman while exhibiting — let’s be nice — an overall convex figure.
Director Patricia Cardoso presides over a touching and thoughtful film about Ana Garcia (America Ferrera), an overweight girl in East Los Angeles the summer after her senior year in high school. Ana wants to go to college against the wishes of her domineering mother, Carmen Garcia (Lupe Ontiveros). Carmen went to work for the first time at age 13, and she says it is only fair that Ana should have to work as well, and not go gallivanting off to college.
If Carmen seems unreasonable now, you haven’t heard anything yet. Ana’s mother tells her daughter she is too fat to get married, and calls her “Butterball” in public. In her first major movie role, Ontiveros somewhat eclipses Ferrera’s more central character with her personal magnetism and brilliance. Carmen is a steel-willed woman, fanatical about her views and goals for her family. The viewer is forced into a love/hate relationship with her identical to the normal maternal/filial relationship, although most viewers probably don’t have Carmen Garcias as their mothers.
Ana finally goes to work in the factory of her sister, Estela (Ingrid Oliu), where Carmen herself and several other women work. This factory is the setting for one of the most publicized scenes of the movie, where Ana, Estela and the rest of the workers strip down to their undergarments. Carmen is scandalized by the display — she is as fat as the rest of them but refuses to flaunt it. The workers’ refusal to submit to social degradation of the overweight is the film’s main theme. As Ana says, women should be judged based on more than just how they look.
“Real Women Have Curves” does a good job of emphasizing contrasts in one of the film’s minor themes: the poverty of many first-generation Mexican-American families living in the Latino community of Los Angeles. While most of the movie’s scenes take place either in the Garcia house or the family factory, Cardoso gives the viewer tantalizing snapshots of affluence elsewhere, making a pointed jab at the inequality that is reality for many Mexican-American families.
The original music by Heitor Pereira (“Spy Kids”) lends a rich, cultural feel to a side of Los Angeles not often featured in American films. Mostly guitar solos and duets, the music links to two minor characters of the movie, Ana’s two cousins, who dream of hearing their music on the radio.
The phrase “real women have curves” is never actually spoken in the movie. But the idea is ever-present — it’s the idea of the curvy characters of the women portrayed. They are not just one-dimensional, but complex and multifarious of purpose.
It is this characteristic of “Real Women” that allows it to get away with having all its main characters be women. A modern-day chick flick like “The Sweetest Thing” couldn’t get away with that. “Real Women Have Curves” is accessible to both guys and girls as it probes the deeper personalities that transcend gender.