Sentimental and insubstantial, Real Women Have Curves revolves around the generational dispute between a mother, a Mexican immigrant, and a daughter who is eager to embrace most aspects of her identity as a first-generation American. The daughter, Ana, has just graduated from high school and wants to go to college (her Latino English teacher encourages her to do so), but instead she capitulates to her mother Carmen’s desire that she operate a steam press at the dress factory where her mother works—a “sweatshop,” Ana accurately calls it—that’s run by Estela, her older sister. Above all, Carmen wants to hold together her family in East Los Angeles, and it may even be that Ana, by working at the shop rather than, as she still hopes to do, striking out on her own isn’t as insensitive as she sometimes seems about the cultural discombobulation that her parents have had to endure. Still, parents must let go of children and let them be, and, given this tragic circumstance at the very soul of family life, it’s a wonder that the writers, Josefina Lopez and George LaVoo, and the director, Patricia Cardozo, chose to focus on Ana, who is as shallow as any other teenager, rather than, say, on Carmen, who surely has the richer story to tell. (The film is based on a 1990 play by Lopez.) This, then, is an opportunistic film cashing in on the currency that two things hold at the box office: the young; the United States. I regret to say it’s little more than that.
One, in fact, is stopped short at the door. The title is objectionable. Both Ana and Carmen are fat (which will mean to many that they lack the curves that shapelier women possess). It is just as absurd, surely, to insist that slender women aren’t “real” as it is to insist that unslender ones aren’t. The title is so much a part of the American tendency to convert every social or cultural controversy into a fight to the death—a figurative fight to the death, at least—that the film had me somewhat out-of-joint even before it started. The point is: all women are “real,” no matter what the condition of their waistline. Of course, Real Women Have Curves is a catchy title, and it has the advantage of inadvertently announcing the film’s opportunism right from the get-go. One instantly knows that this is going to be a hard film to like. (Not for those at Sundance, though, where it took the audience prize.)
Carmen hates her body image, and now and then even Ana betrays the unhappiness about her weight that comes from having been called for years Butterball, as a term of endearment, by her mother. Nevertheless, for reasons of denial and political correctness, Ana generally insists that she is content with her body image and on one occasion leads the dress shop workers, including Estela but excluding Carmen, an outraged holdout, in a feminist stripdown in defiance of the American standard of trim femininity. It’s a good thing that the impetus for this extravaganza of disrobed pudgy flesh is the heat in the unventilated sweatshop; this connects the event to something real and important. Regrettably, however, the film all but dismisses the deplorable conditions with which these workers are routinely beset in order to stress Ana’s growing awareness of how hard Estela works to keep the shop (barely) afloat. We know that the overworked, underpaid Latinas are making $18 dresses for stupendous mark-ups to be paid by the white credit-card crowd, without any financial benefit accruing to themselves. Yet the workers, perhaps grateful for any employment at all, appear unbothered by the situation, and Ana is too busy radicalizing in the cause of “fat power” to donate time to more necessary struggles—the bigger picture, as it were. I am very moved by the philosophy of acceptance that permeates, say, Yasujiro Ozu’s films; but this really doesn’t apply to Cardoso’s film, in which the beleaguered, exploited workers appear oblivious, not accepting. This film, let me tell you, is no Bread and Roses (Ken Loach, 1999). Rather, it raises serious issues peripherally simply to sweep them under the rug in favor of family cohesiveness.
Nor is it a work that seriously engages the monumental theme of the struggle to assimilate that American immigrants and their children wage. For that, consult Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Antonia or even Upton Sinclair’s 1906 The Jungle. However much credit one wishes to give the film for avoiding melodramatic excesses, it’s a thing of inflated feelings rather than penetrating analysis. The film essentially toys with human experience. It fails to come to grips with the excesses of quotidian American capitalism.
Women have brains as well as curves—and hearts, and souls. (As do men.) Not in this film, however, where at least the bickering mother and daughter appear to have strayed from the set of a blatant, mechanically pleasing TV sitcom. Even Estela, the film’s most interesting character as she unconscionably pursues economic success on the backs of her employees, is sentimentalized in a scene or two. Too much in this film is rigged to affect an audience; little is sounded out for reality or truth. How horrible that the film, while casting a critical eye on Carmen, refrains from doing so in the case of Ana. This is cruel as well as unfair. Finally, it’s hard to know what to make of the fact that most of the major male characters—Ana’s father and grandfather, and her non-Latino boyfriend—seek to avoid confrontations with Carmen at all costs.
By way of compensation, the final shot of the film, in New York City, where Ana has gone at last to attend Columbia University, no less, is terrific. Ironically, though, this belated high point serves only to remind one how much infinitely better a film, on a similar daughter-mother theme, is Chantal Äkerman’s News from Home (1977), which has the wisdom and humanity not to promote one family member’s reality at the expense of another’s. Äkerman’s New York-set documentary, about her flexing her independence while dealing with her mother’s lonely demands for company back home in Brussels, is about two real “real women.” Cardoso’s film, by contrast, is all papier-mâché.
America Ferrera (TV’s Ugly Betty) plays Ana, Lupe Ontiveros plays Carmen, and Ingrid Oliu, the standout, plays Estela.
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