My Big Fat Beautiful Body

The more the merrier: America Ferrera in 'Real Women Have Curves'
IFC Films

First of all, Real Women Have Curves is way smarter than That Dumb-Ass Movie About the Greek Chick and Her Big Fat Wedding. Comparisons between the two are unavoidable: Both are low-budget, woman-made indies about savvy, chunky females with overprotective immigrant families. Us magazine even lumped the two movies together in a recent article on the alleged "Fat Is the New Skinny" fad in Hollywood (or whatever they're calling it--you know, because there are five actresses in Hollywood over 105 pounds, it must be, like, a thing). Still, the article noted, rightly, that unless Real Women does well at the box office, the major studios won't be funding any movies about chubby Latino teens.

Which would be a drag. Because as Real Women Have Curves proves, the world needs movies about fat Mexican girls in East L.A. Actually, this moviegoer would settle for good movies about fat girls of any kind--or about Mexican-Americans, or about intelligent teenagers, or about anybody in East L.A. (And that's not p.c. talking, either. Hollywood gets this kind of rich, camera-ready material totally wrong almost every time.) Anyway, Real Women Have Curves combines all those elements and then some: It's also about America, religion, and, especially, the weirdness between mothers and daughters. It's a conflicted movie, though--and far from perfect. If this movie were a person, you might say it had "unresolved issues."

The heroine is Ana (the fantastic America Ferrera), a high school senior who lives in East L.A., but who takes the city bus every morning to Beverly Hills High, where she's about to graduate with an awesome GPA and the potential for a university scholarship. Unfortunately, Ana's main obstacle to success is Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros), her neurotic, rosary-sucking drama-queen mother. Carmen has worked in a dress factory for years, and believes that Ana deserves a life of hard, low-paying labor as well. It's a matter of principle, she tells her husband, who's a gardener. It isn't fair. And so, after graduation, Ana, too, goes to work in the dress factory, run by her older sister (Ingrid Oliu)--who is clearly as intelligent as Ana, though not half as self-confident. In secret, Ana is preparing an application to Columbia University.

The film is adept at tackling numerous messy goals all at once: For example, Ana's bus ride to school is not only a character- and plot-building device, but a tribute to the battered beauty of real-life L.A. The camera lingers adoringly on everyday Angeleno sights that rarely make it onscreen: Latino guys waiting on the street corner in the early morning for day jobs; stray dogs and old ladies. It's a cinematic, populist "screw you" to so many Hollywood stereotypes about L.A.--particularly the myth that nobody walks anywhere (recently touted in the New York Times, no less). Sure, nobody walks in L.A.--except for hundreds of thousands of poor people.

In addition, the movie tells a small, sweet love story about Ana and a Beverly Hills white boy (Brian Sites)--while also making a bodacious statement about women's sexuality and body-image problems. Somehow, all this works, too. The film's climax actually centers on this issue: On one sweltering day at the factory, Ana decides to take off her shirt and pants, igniting a cathartic confrontation between herself, her mother, the factory ladies, and, in truth, the viewer. Indeed, I have never seen women's bodies--and their feelings about their bodies--portrayed so honestly in a movie. When Ana says, "Look how beautiful we are," I couldn't completely agree--and that challenge felt wonderful and, yes, liberating. You want a film to be more visionary than you are, to open your eyes so wide that it hurts. That's what film is for.

Perhaps because she's trying to accomplish so much, director Patricia Cardoso chooses to simplify other elements--including, unfortunately, Ana's mother. The burden of dramatic tension is placed entirely on this character's shoulders (Will she defeat Ana?), and, as a result, she often descends into caricature. Ontiveros's portrayal feels at times like a comic extension of the long-suffering Jewish-mother stereotype, but in Spanish. (Between this and her homicidal housekeeper in Storytelling, Ontiveros has had to play some real jerks lately.) If the mother character had been allowed more shades of gray, Ana's struggle might have been more complicated, too. Maybe we could have seen even more of the ways that girls struggle with private demons: conflicted feelings about breaking family patterns, guilt about opportunities their parents lacked, self-doubt about leaving the nest. You know--the things that any American girl can relate to, but doesn't often see in a movie.

Still, the fact that Real Women Have Curves is even trying to grapple with this stuff puts it in a class way beyond that other movie about the Greek chick. And I'm grateful for that. Now, like Ana, I want more.

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