A mother and child disunion

Times Staff Writer

“Real Women Have Curves” teams appealing newcomer America Ferrera and beloved veteran Lupe Ontiveros in a mother-daughter tug-of-war, alternately painful and funny, set in the warm embrace of East L.A.'s Boyle Heights. It marks a winning directorial debut for Patricia Cardoso, who gracefully brings to the screen George LaVoo and Josefina Lopez’s adaptation of Lopez’s popular 1990 play. In a beguiling instance of perceiving the universal in the particular, “Real Women,” winner of the audience award at Sundance this year, has built-in crossover appeal for anyone who either pulled himself or herself up by the bootstraps or dealt with weight issues--or both.

Ferrera’s beautiful but plump Ana, however, doesn’t see herself as having a weight problem, even if her mother, Carmen, reminds her of it continually, seeing it as a barrier to landing a husband. But then Ana and Carmen don’t see eye to eye on anything. The bright and ambitious Ana has somehow finagled admission to Beverly Hills High School, where she is a senior, and struck up a friendship with a wealthy classmate (Brian Sites). Her English teacher (George Lopez) has encouraged her to apply for college and scholarships, but Ana’s family is dead set against it, insisting that it’s more important for her to help out her older sister, Estela (Ingrid Oliu), with her struggling garment factory, where Carmen works as a seamstress. Estela’s father (Jorge Cervera Jr.) reasons that once Estela has her business on a firm footing--hardly a certainty--then Ana can think about college. Outvoted, Ana submits to her family’s united front.

It’s at Estela’s factory that “Real Women” cuts to the heart of the matter, which is the impact the free-thinking Ana and the tradition-minded Latinas she works with have on each other. Stuck with ironing the assembled garments, Ana is brought face to face with the sweatshop conditions Estela and Carmen and their co-workers endure to make a living. Ana is appalled to hear that Estela receives as little as $18 for a beautiful evening gown that will sell at Bloomingdale’s for $600. Ana sees the value in helping out the resilient but sometimes intimidated Estela, who has real designing talent worth nurturing. At the same time, she becomes increasingly determined to escape the grinding factory existence yet is steeped in the Latino tradition of family solidarity.

Meanwhile, Ana and Carmen keep each other in a constant state of exasperation at home and at work. Carmen at heart is surely a loving mother only wanting what she thinks is best for her younger daughter, but she is demeaning and shamelessly manipulating Ana. If Carmen weren’t so funny in her superstitions and outrageous tactics, she would surely seem a monster. This is a wonderful role for an actress of the skill and stature of Ontiveros, whose innate warmth is crucial in maintaining Carmen’s humanity. Most important, the role of Carmen is major and allows us to see what Ontiveros has always been throughout all those maid roles--at least 150 by her own count: America’s own Anna Magnani, an actress of such star personality, skill and talent that she intuitively selects the revealing gesture, and holds the pause or the glance or inflection just the right length of time. Yet Ontiveros could not seem more spontaneous and natural; Indeed, it takes conscious effort to uncover and track the art of her self-disguising technique.


Ontiveros’ radiant presence sparks a screen full of terrific performances, above all, Ferrera’s multifaceted portrayal of the conflicted Ana, who ultimately has a liberating effect on her co-workers, her mother seemingly excepted. There are plot developments here and there that are a bit of a stretch, and the distaff semi-"Full Monty” moment that gives the film its title probably plays more credibly on stage than screen, for all its lovely exuberance. Even so, “Real Women Have Curves” is honest and wise enough to strike the right bittersweet note.


‘Real Women Have Curves’

MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual content and some language. Times guidelines: family fare but with a few decidedly adult situations.

An HBO and Newmarket Films presentation. Director Patricia Cardoso. Producers George LaVoo, Effie T. Brown. Screenplay LaVoo, Josefina Lopez; based on Lopez’s play. Cinematographer Jim Denault. Editor Sloane Klevin. Music Heitor Pereira. Costumes Elaine Montalvo. Production designer Brigitte Broch. Art directors Deb Riley, Amy Strong. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

America Ferrera...Ana

Lupe Ontiveros...Carmen

Ingrid Oliu...Estela


George Lopez...Mr. Guzman

Brian Sites...Jimmy

Jorge Cervera Jr....Raul