A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Ana's boyfriend, Jimmy, tells her, "You're not fat. You're beautiful." She is both. "Real Women Have Curves" doesn't argue that Ana is beautiful on the "inside," like the Gwyneth Paltrow character in "Shallow Hal," but that she is beautiful inside and out--love handles, big boobs, round cheeks and all. "Turn the lights on," she shyly tells Jimmy. "I want you to see me. See, this is what I look like." Ana has learned to accept herself. It is more than her mother can do. Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros) is fat, too, and hates herself for it, and wants her daughter to share her feelings. Ana is smart and could get a college scholarship, but Carmen insists she go to work in a dress factory run by a family member: It's her duty to the family, apparently, to sacrifice her future. The fact that the dress factory is pleasant and friendly doesn't change the reality that it's a dead end; you are at the wrong end of the economy when you make dresses for $18 so that they can be sold for $600.
Ana is a Mexican American, played by America Ferrera, an 18-year-old in her first movie role. Ferrera is a wonder: natural, unforced, sweet, passionate and always real. Her battle with her mother is convincing in the movie because the director, Patricia Cardoso, doesn't force it into shrill melodrama but keeps it within the boundaries of a plausible family fight. It is a tribute to the great Lupe Ontiveros that Carmen is able to suggest her love for her daughter even when it is very hard to see.
There have been several movies recently about the second generation of children of immigrants--Indian, Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese--and they follow broad outlines borrowed from life. The parents try to enforce conditions of their homeland on the kids, who are becoming Americanized at blinding speed. While Carmen is insisting on her daughter's virginity, Ana is buying condoms. She insists in a view of her life that is not her parents'. That includes college.
If this movie had been made 10 years ago, it might have been shrill, insistent and dramatic--overplaying its hand. Cardoso and her writers, Josefina Lopez and George LaVoo, are more relaxed, more able to feel affection for all of the characters. Yes, her parents want Ana to work in the dress shop of their older daughter, and yes, they fear losing her--because they sense if she goes away to college she will return as a different person. But the parents are not monsters, and we sense that their love will prevail over their fears.