Real Women Have Curves

reviewed by Steve Sailer

UPI, October 17, 2002


"Real Women Have Curves" is a low-budget Mexican-American comedy-drama that proved a hit at the Sundance film festival. It opens in limited release on Friday.

Its story -- an Americanized child rebels against an immigrant parent's Old Country values -- is as old as the talkies. Literally. Back in 1927 that was the plot of Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer."

Here, a smart but chubby Latina must decide between loyally slaving away for the rest of her life in her family's East L.A. dress factory or accepting a full-tuition scholarship to Columbia U. in New York City.

Sweatshop or Ivy League? That's really not a tough choice, so the movie doesn't generate too much dramatic tension. Still, despite some preachiness and a few embarrassing moments, it's a well enough executed chick flick.

"Real Women Have Curves" also offers a useful portrait of the warmth and insularity of the Hispanic community, a huge segment of the American population that Hollywood normally ignores.

Although Hispanics have caught up with blacks in numbers, they trail them badly at the box office. Latino movies looked like they were off to a good start fifteen years ago with the admirable films "La Bamba" and "Stand and Deliver." Yet, little of note has happened since. Of the 255 films that have made $100 million at the domestic box office, only Richard Rodriguez's lively "Spy Kids" could be classified as Mexican-American.

Non-Hispanic moviegoers don't seem particularly interested in watching movies about Latinos, while a large fraction of the immigrant audience prefers to watch their old telenovelas on Spanish language television. One oddity is that Latin American shows are even more obsessed than Hollywood productions with blonde actresses. "Real Women's" mestizo actresses would be too dark to win many leading roles south of the border.

This film has a lot on its mind and perhaps tries to get too much off its chest about such worthy causes as the struggle of women to overcome society's toxic body image messages and learn to appreciate their fatness.

When feminists denounce "society," that's usually a euphemism meaning they're angry with other women. (When they are mad at men, they just come right out and blame men.) Impressively for a movie that's a bit of a feminist fable, "Real Women" doesn't try to make villains out of the male characters, who are all portrayed as fine fellows. Instead, the enemy is a fashion industry that pays the size twenty seamstresses $18 for each size two dress they make, which later sell at Bloomingdale's for $600 apiece. Slender women are portrayed as a predatory aristocracy.

The movie's main drama falls between daughter and mother. The 4'-11" veteran character actress Lupe Ontiveros has been cast as a maid so many times that she has become to modern movies what Hattie McDaniel was to the "Gone With The Wind" era. Here, though, Ontiveros gets to stand tall in a wonderful role as the immigrant mother. Her peasant principles, superstitions, and self-dramatizations repeatedly provoke her feminist daughter, who keeps whining that a woman should be valued for her thoughts, not her looks.

The teenage actress America Ferrera plays the rapidly assimilating daughter. Whenever she's with her nagging mother, she turns on the All-American sullen teen frown and slumping posture that makes her look 40 pounds overweight. (While I admire the movie for making the teenage heroine realistically annoying, she can be a pill. And, to be frank, she really should lose some weight. She'd feel more energetic.)

Still, when Ferrera's character is feeling self-confident, her body language changes and suddenly she's pretty.

Perhaps the ultimate at this fun-to-watch acting trick was Marilyn Monroe. Her roommate Susan Strasberg recounted that if she wasn't wearing makeup, the legend could walk the streets of New York City unnoticed. Yet, she'd sometimes giggle to Strasberg, "Watch this," and immediately transform herself from the inside into "Marilyn Monroe!" Within seconds, hundreds of pedestrians would be staring at her in excitement.

Indeed, the last scene of "Real Women Have Curves" shows the new college student in makeup and heels doing the hip-swinging supermodel strut -- heel in front of toe -- through Times Square. Whatever happened to all those pious proclamations about mind over body? What exactly are they teaching at Columbia these days?

Well, let's get used to it: No matter how much a script sermonizes, it's inevitable in the nature of the medium that a film will convey the contradictory message that, in the final analysis, looking hot is the best revenge.

Also, if the heroine has "body image issues," wouldn't Manhattan -- home of supermodels and social X-rays -- be the worst possible new home? Wouldn't a cold weather location with a better-insulated student body, such as the U. of Wisconsin at Madison, prove a happier fit?

Rated PG-13 for sexual content and some language.


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