Ana (América Ferrera) is graduating from Beverly Hills High School. But, unlike her privileged classmates, she can’t count on going to college. For the past four years, Ana has been riding the city bus from her home in East Los Angeles to school, where her teachers extol her intelligence, talent, and promise. When she gets home each day, however, she lives another life.
That life, in Real Women Have Curves, is centered on Ana’s family, in particular, her mother Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros). The youngest child, Ana represents all sorts of ideals for Carmen, and some fears as well, for instance, that her own life will remain unchanged, that her hard work has led her to disappointment, that her youth and dreams are past. And so, as Ana is preparing to leave home, even considering the possibility, Carmen reminds her that her first obligation is to her family, not herself. The decision is made: Ana will work fulltime in the sweatshop owned by her sister Estela (Ingrid Oliu).
Much as she has been expecting it, Ana can’t help but resent this turn of events. After all, her favorite teacher, Mr. Guzman (George Lopez), has been encouraging her to pursue her studies, indeed, to apply to Columbia, where he has connections (thus enabling her to send in a late application). He goes so far as to come by Ana’s house, unfortunately during her family-only graduation party, to urge Carmen and Ana’s father Raul (Jorge Cervera, Jr.) to let her go. Carmen is offended by the intrusion and the challenge to her authority. Raul, caught out at the very moment when he only wants to celebrate his daughter’s achievement, looks stricken.
Amid all this adult turf-marking, Ana stands distraught. How can she explain to her teacher — much less her parents — her many responsibilities, frustrations, and ambitions? Young Ferrara’s face registers a range of complex emotions in a matter of seconds — hope, disappointment, pride, fear, and stubborn idealism. It’s a remarkable moment, happily one of many for Ferrara, whose sophisticated, intelligent performance grounds the film even when it occasionally lurches into soapy predictability and contrivance.
True, the film did win the Sundance Film Festival’s Dramatic Audience Award this year. But Real Women Have Curves has more going on than rousing “humanism” or a collection of coming-of-age clichés. Directed by Patricia Cardoso, and written by George LaVoo and Josefina López (based on her play), the film frames Ana’s story as a series of confrontations with Carmen. Equally willful and impassioned, mother and daughter argue repeatedly and vigorously, over concerns that are specific to them, for example, their side-by-side jobs at the sweatshop. Ana, understandably, rejects the prospect of “becoming” her mother: the last thing she wants is to be sitting at the same sewing machine 25 years later. Also understandably, Carmen begrudges Ana’s seeming disdain, and wants her respect.
Also complicated are Ana’s decision and purposeful plans to lose her virginity. While she has no illusions about being saved by a Prince Charming, she chooses to date a gringo from school, the well-meaning Jimmy (Brian Sites), a practical, sensible choice. And in another welcome twist, even as Ana engineers all sorts of subterfuges to hide her dates from her mother, it is Carmen who has a pregnancy scare. This is brought on by any number of needs and fears, not least among them that Ana is looking to leave her. Further displacing her fear of abandonment by lashing out at Ana, Carmen criticizes her daughter’s curvy body, suggesting that it limits her marriage prospects. She goes so far as to monitor what Ana eats, telling her that, though she likes flan, she can’t have any. Don’t you know: the reverse shot has Ana deliberately spooning the desert into her mouth.
Mature and self-confident, Ana rejects such traditional notions of a woman’s worth, insisting that, if she enjoys and respects her body, boys — and her mother — can just deal with it. (In one bracing scene, she strips to her underwear while working at her ironing station, horrifying her mother, but rallying her fellow workers to recognize and appreciate their own bodies, perhaps especially apt, given their setting, in the steamy sweatshop.)
Ana also takes it on herself to help Estela negotiate some difficult situations at work. Though exasperated by her own assignment — every day, hour after hour, she irons dresses that an upscale downtown department store will buy from Estela for $18 apiece, then mark up to $600 — Ana begins to appreciate Estela’s aspirations. The older sister once had hopes and dreams as well, once imagined her factory as a way to escape the barrio, not be trapped forever. While Estela is increasingly overwhelmed by day-to-day details, Ana brings another, less weary perspective, making use of the code-switching skills she has learned during years of negotiating different class, race, and gender expectations, crossing between Beverly Hills and her neighborhood and back again.
Ana’s wisdom and healthy self-awareness make her refreshingly different from most high school movie girls. And if Real Women Have Curves concludes a little too neatly, it treats its protagonist with uncommon respect. It’s a movie about a high school graduate that leaves out the usual anxieties, about whether a girl’s wearing glasses or will have sex on prom night. Instead, it focuses on issues that actually concern most graduates, whatever their backgrounds or body types: making peace with the past while imagining what comes next.