Get real

Real Women takes simple approach to complex issues

Ana's graduation from her Beverly Hills high school should be full of promise and freshly hatched expectation. But Ana (America Ferrera) is a Mexican-American with a seamstress mother and gardener father who takes two city buses from her East L.A. neighborhood to reach her fancy school each morning.

While her privileged classmates are heading off to Stanford or M.I.T., Ana's financially strapped family encourages her to join the workforce to pay the bills. The most pressure comes from Ana's mother Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros), a needy, verbally abusive hypochondriac who reasons that if she had to go to work when she was just a girl, Ana should have to go to work at 18.

On her first day working at the sweatshop where her mother toils behind a sewing machine and her sister is a manager, Ana immediately grasps her family's lowly status in the scheme of things. In their grubby, un-air-conditioned factory, these women work to produce sleek party dresses that will garner them $18 per gown, though Bloomingdale's will later sell them for $600.

Real Women Have Curves is a coming-of-age story told from the vantage of the opinionated, saucy and whip-smart Ana, torn between her ambition to attend college and the family loyalty that keeps her chained to a dead-end job in her sister's factory.

Real Women Have Curves can feel like a Mexican-American Moonstruck about the cultural eccentricities of a family that thrills to the elaborate twists and turns of their nightly Mexican soap opera. Director Patricia Cardosa has also given Ana a blossoming crush on a skinny rich boy at her school, Jimmy (Brian Sites), planted in the film to reaffirm how bad Ana has it.

Real Women is a well-meaning film about the difficulty of some lives in an America of seemingly limitless plenitude, and it features a fierce, complex heroine you'd like to root for. But every effort at telling it like it is in Real Women comes with a fairy tale footnote — some detail or conflict that seems too easy, too trite, too slick to work. Typical is Ana's transformation at the sweatshop from a clueless brat eyed suspiciously by the middle-aged seamstresses to riot grrrl Norma Rae. If there is an issue or problem to be solved in Real Women, chances are the feisty Ana — more feminist fantasy than flesh-and-blood — will grab it by its business end.

On the verge of losing her virginity to Jimmy, Ana is insulted when he flips off the lights as the "moment" draws near. Ana instead demands the bright, hot illumination of truth. She commands her scrawny paramour to join her at the mirror where she asks him to look at her naked body in a very Helen Reddy "take me as I am" gesture.

While that bravery can be liberating, it never seems entirely real, just as the neurotic whining about her health and cruel put-downs from Ana's toxic mother seem like something recycled from an old Woody Allen comedy sketch about Jewish mothers.

It's refreshing to see a film centered around a young woman as outspoken as Ana, whose fertility statue curviness provokes a startling awareness of how narrow our cultural definition of sexiness is. Director Cardosa clearly means Ana to reconceive the notion of what is beautiful — hence the film's title. But heap too much self-affirmative speech-making onto one character and an almost unbelievably perfect ending onto a film, and it's easy to lose sight of the reality wrapped within such shrill and simplistic pronouncements.