Real Women Have Curves

While it surely has been a banner year for coming of age indies, what with Tadpole, Igby Goes Down and the new release Blue Car, only Real Women has class. Working class, that is. Unlike its counterparts, the Garcia family doesn’t know Zabars from zaftig or Voltaire from Volvo. Our heroine, Ana, is one generation from being “fresh off the boat,” and so her conflicts carry far more weight than those of her bourgeois peers.

The Garcia family works hard. Their daughter, Ana, has a long commute to Beverly Hills High from the barrios of L.A., but once there, she tries to conceal the depths of her humble origins. Only after she graduates and grudgingly agrees to pitch in to the family business – finishing couture gowns in a stifling factory space– does she learn just how hard they toil.

With her iBook and JanSport backpack, Ana has been sheltered from the family’s daily struggles – keeping the business afloat, paying rent, even putting food on the table. While it has become commonplace to see a woman onscreen reject expectations as either wife or mother, and to see her embrace choices that include a university education, for the family in Real Women this thinking is unprecedented and incomprehensible, because Ana’s family needs her. She has a strong emotional bond with her abuelo – her grandfather – and an antagonistic love-hate relationship to a mother who worries that as a “butterball,” Ana will become an old maid, like her other sister, Estela. When Ana considers a future beyond her family, it is cataclysmic decision. But rather than leaving her family behind, she learns to celebrate their traditions, while being true to her future school.

As Ana, eighteen-old America Ferrera begins as a plaintive adolescent and matures into an outspoken woman who is proud of her body, defiant about being exploited as a cheap laborer, but tender to her family. Ana’s scenes of first love with Jimmy, an anglo classmate, are rife with charm, recalling George Roy Hill’s A Little Romance. Rather than savoring a sweet morning after, Ana finds herself confronted by her mother. Carmen can somehow intuit that Ana has lost her virginity and chastises her for being a whore. It is a disquieting landing after a brief interlude in the clouds.

After a lifetime of being consigned to roles of a latina Butterfly McQueen, Lupe Ontiveros, recently seen in Chuck & Buck and Storytelling, is emerging as a formidable actress. As the matriarch Carmen, she is a ball of contradictions. She wants the best for her daughter but does not see the value of her attending college. When Ana’s father Raul suggests that Ana might benefit from higher education, Carmen can see only family responsibility: “I’ll teach her to sew, raise children. It’s a matter of principle. Now it’s her turn.” After decades of bending and scraping, and literally working her fingers to the bone as a seamstress, Carmen cannot fathom Ana leaving the family, even temporarily. To do so would be abandonment.

In a key scene, Ana finds herself on the verge of heatstroke and strips down to her skivvies. Mother Carmen is mortified, and grows even more shocked as Ana persuades her factory co-workers, all women, to do the same. One by one they compare their battle scars –sagging breasts, stretch marks, and cellulite. But on this occasion the room is filled with laughter and the women are empowered.

Few American filmmakers have explored Latino lives with authenticity and intimacy. There is Allison Anders’ Mi Vida Loca, her feature about Southern California girl gangs, and the recent work of John Sayles (including his upcoming Casa de los Babys). A superb "small" film, La Ciudad, was, unfortunately, seen by very few. In Real Women, Patricia Cardoso has done right in her precise and unsentimental direction of a screenplay based on Josefina Lopez’s autobiographical play. Due to a shower of praise at this year’s Sundance Festival, including the Dramatic Audience award and Jury Prize for acting (shared by both Ferrera and Ontiveros), HBO has released the feature in theaters, rather than on cable.

– Jerry Weinstein