Real Women Have Curves

January, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Patricia Cardoso

Starring:America Ferrera and Lupe Ontiveros

On the heels of the expensively made but ultimately unsuccessful White Oleander comes this modest film by first time director Patricia Cardoso which manages to deliver the credibility and impact Oleander tried for, but failed to achieve. 

Like its Caucasian predecessor, Women also examines the emotional tug of war between a domineering mother and her rebellious daughter, but this time with a Latino backdrop. The deceptively simple plot follows Ana, an 18 year old second generation Mexican-American, through the summer following her graduation from high school. Despite her excellent grades, obvious intelligence and the support of her high school advisor, Ana's mother Carmen refuses to give the feisty Ana permission to apply for an academic scholarship to college. 

Ana lives with her parents, older sister, grandfather and two male cousins in a small but immaculately maintained home in the barrio of South Los Angles. She sports a willfulness of attitude that's almost as substantial as her generous figure.  Mother Carmen, (played by Lupe Ontiveros) packs even more pounds on her much smaller frame and throws her weight around the family with imperious distain for the feelings of anyone who crosses her path. As Ana, first-time lead actress America Ferrera gives as good as she gets; here are two strong-willed women, perfectly prepared to break lots of emotional china to get what they want. But all this occurs inside a warm family of richly detailed relationships; we learn about life in grandfather's village many years earlier with the same attention to detail as we do the hard work done by Ana's older sister Estela in the small dress shop she runs.

At Ana's backyard graduation party, Carmen announces that Ana's desire to go to college would break up their close knit family, and that Ana should be satisfied to help the family by working in the dress shop instead, alongside her mother and older sister. Ana's sullen response and self-centered attitude at work present a personality as unflattering as that of her mother's, but as the summer wears on, the tension between these two opinionated, confrontational women is frequently interrupted by Ana's growing realization of how hard life has been for the women in her family, and how much she owes them as a result. Ana then finds a bit of relief from the grinding monotony of her work in her romance with a shy male classmate from high school who's as college bound as Ana wishes to be.

This is a movie of finely observed detail, not sweeping vision; the insularity and strength of Hispanic family life, the irrepressible flair, piety and emotional volatility of Latino culture and the often sad limitations which burden members of minority communities because of the risks attendant on striking out independently from one's roots are observed here with quiet grace and clarity. Conflict and humor abound; and it's delivered with a pungent, Chaucerian directness that enables the audience to absolve these two female warriors their self-centeredness as often as they do each other. 

When fall arrives, and the opportunity of college surprisingly reasserts itself, each member of Ana's family reacts to her decision in ways that are both predictable and valid; there may be no easy answers here, but there are good ones nonetheless, despite the pain involved. A few plot contrivances and an occasional heavy handedness in the director's points not withstanding, this is a remarkably accomplished effort that's impossible not to like. And the performances by Ferrera and Ontiveros should qualify as Oscar contenders next spring.      

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