Latino films are quietly starting to make a little headway in Hollywood. In the past years, films like "Y Tu Mama Tambien", "Like Water For Chocolate" and "Selena" have made an impression on both the general viewing public and critics alike. Recently, Hollywood, in its drive to diversify, premiered the first big-budget network television miniseries on NBC that centered on a Hispanic family, titled "Kingpin". Alas, for the burgeoning Hispanic population in the U.S., it was not a time to celebrate, as the show featured, of all things, a family of Mexican drug dealers--not exactly the best possible way to showcase the Hispanic community. However, last year also saw the release of two compelling films that are made up of a mostly Latino cast--Julie Taymor's "Frida" for which Selma Hayek was nominated for an acting Oscar (the first for a Latino actress) and "Real Women Have Curves", a film by Patricia Cardoso, which is also HBO Films' first theatrical release. What sets these two movies apart from the usual fare is that, for a change, they show the Hispanic community in a good light instead of gun-toting gangbangers or drug smugglers. While the former captured most of the media attention due to its high profile stars and Frida Kahlo as its subject matter, it is the latter that offers a fresh and intimate look into the lives of a regular working-class Hispanic family living in East L.A.
Based on a play by Josefina Lopez, "RWHC" tells the story of Ana (America Ferrera), who recently graduated from high school and like most teenagers during that stage in life, is in limbo as to what next to do with her life. However, unlike most of the other well-off students graduating from Beverly Hills High School, Ana finds herself in a particularly difficult position when it comes to her future. She is torn between following her family's (specifically, her mother Carmen's) wishes that she start working and help out the family or pursue her own dreams of attending college. Like most children of immigrants growing up in modern American society, Ana frequently clashes with her more traditional mother when it comes to discussions about her future. Hardheaded and imposing Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros) wants Ana to follow in her footsteps by learning the skills of a traditional housewife--cooking, cleaning and making babies. To her, a woman's ideal role is to serve her husband. After failing miserably with Ana's unmarried older sister, Estela (Ingrid Oliu), Carmen is now pinning all her hopes on Ana. Sounds like a mother from hell, right? Well, it gets worse. By normal social definition, Ana is a little large in size and Carmen does not let her forget it. Every chance she gets, Carmen likes to shoot off a snide remark about Ana's weight, effectively destroying any shred of self-confidence the young lady possesses.
As part of her "re-education", Ana is pushed by her mother into working for her sister Estela, who runs a small garment factory that assembles gowns and dresses for upscale stores like Bloomingdales. Employing a group of middle-aged seamstresses, Estela struggles daily to fill her orders while trying to keep the business afloat. It is in this factory, which Ana candidly describes as a sweatshop, that Ana is given a firsthand look into the hard lives of working women slaving away under furnace-like temperatures just to earn a living. She learns the real meaning of hard work and how her mother, sister and these other women work tirelessly to churn out dresses that are worn on happy occasions. However, the worst tragedy of all is that these beautiful dresses that they are assembling will be sold at a much higher price than the pittance that Estela is being paid for assembling them.
With encouragement from her teacher Mr. Guzman (played very seriously by comedian George Lopez), Ana applies for college admission and is accepted to Columbia University. However, Carmen is totally against Ana leaving for college. She has no justifiable reason except for the fact that her own daughter must go through the same hardships that she did when she was her age. Carmen even takes advantage of Ana's close relationship with her grandfather (Felipe de Alba) by reminding her that it will break his heart if she leaves. At this point, you just want to put your sweaty hands on Carmen's neck and wring it as hard as you can. If there ever is a hell on earth, Carmen must surely be a spawn of Lucifer!
Unfortunately for Carmen, an independent-minded 18-year old does not always take advice or criticism well, especially when it is given with a condescending tone. Verbal skirmishes between mother and daughter happen often and you start to wonder how these two tolerate each other, much less live under the same roof. Only much later did I realize that these two women are only playing their roles in a movie and it is a tribute to the acting prowess of Ferrera and Ontiveros that they are able to elicit such powerful emotional responses from me. Both of them deservingly were awarded a Special Jury Prize for Acting at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
How often do you watch a movie and go, "Damn! I wished I had a girlfriend that looked like that!"? Too many times, I'm afraid. The image of the perfect woman has been distorted to the point that women with stick-thin figures and a pretty face are considered so highly desirable that many impressionable teenage girls covet their looks. "RWHC" tries to put that unhealthy notion to rest. Being a plus-sized teenager in modern-day America is like a social death sentence. Shunned by your more popular (and often thinner) peers and with the constant media onslaught projecting society's vision of the "perfect" woman everywhere you turn, it is no wonder that so many of our young people suffer from clinical depression. A whole generation growing up dependant on Prozac and slimming pills is nothing to be proud of. "RWHC" not only features women that are slightly overweight, it celebrates their freedom from a society that has held them in chains and ashamed of their natural bodies. It is truly a breath of fresh air when the women you see coming through your TV screen is not always sexy, voluptuous and as beautiful as the mythical Helen of Troy.
The underlying message gleamed from "RWHC" can be described differently depending on which points of view you are looking from. First, non-Hispanics can see this film as a series of eye-opening snapshots into the lives of a regular Hispanic family that is rich in both culture and old world traditions. The movie serves as a good forum to tell a touching story from the views of a very traditional matriarch and her modern teenage daughter. However, this approach to filmmaking is neither new nor groundbreaking. "The Joy Luck Club" went down the same path, introducing many of us to Asian, specifically, Chinese culture, from the points of view of immigrants and their American-born children. From another point of view, many women can definitely see this movie as a soapbox for the female empowerment movement. It is not a coincidence at all that the writer, director and most of the actors are Hispanic women. The male characters in this movie hold only peripheral roles, relinquishing the limelight this time in favor of the senoritas.
What grabbed me about this film is how real the characters are depicted. No caricatures but just real people with real proportions and real personalities. Many of them even reminded me of persons whom I have met before throughout my life. For example, Ana is your typical teenager, lazy and rebellious while Carmen fits the profile of an imposing mother who can be more than a drama queen when the situation requires it. I am sure many of you can think of somebody that fits those descriptions above.
Make no mistake, like its title suggests, this film is first about less-than-perfect women embracing their natural God-given beauty. The fact that they are all Hispanic is really a secondary consideration. Most guys will stay away from this movie due to its female-friendly and dramatic storyline. However, from this guy's point of view, I must state with conviction that "Real Women Have Curves" successfully delivers a positive social message without once coming across as too preachy. It is an ideal movie that can be enjoyed by both sexes regardless of race and ethnicity. In short, "Real Women Have Curves" is a great little movie that will have broad appeal to anyone willing to give it a chance. Go ahead and try it on for size.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen measuring 1.85:1, the video is expectedly clean without any blemishes or dirt. The beautiful and colorful sights of East L.A. are brought to life and cleverly framed through the eyes of director Cardoso.
There are several choices when it comes to subtitle options. Both English and Spanish languages are spoken throughout the film. Those that are fluent in Spanish can have Spanish subtitles turned on when English is spoken and vice-versa. Also, optional English subtitles can be turned on for the entire movie.
As a bilingual film, "Real Women Have Curves" feature both English and Spanish languages in Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby Surround 2.0 tracks. Mainly driven by heavy dialogue, the audio track is concentrated in the center with rich Latino-flavored music adding depth and warmth to the experience. A truly enjoyable audio track even if the surround channels are rarely utilized.
Two separate audio commentaries are the main features to be found in the extras section. One is by America Ferrera and Lupe Ontiveros while the other has director Patricia Cardoso, producer George LaVoo and writer Josefina Lopes lending their comments about the film. Not much to comment about both except that not much information is given about any interesting aspects of making this movie, which is what I usually listen out for. What comes next are a pair of featurettes, one in English and the other in Spanish. The English one is the usual fluffy say-no-evil fare with little substance. The Spanish featurette, while visually different from the English one, unfortunately contain no subtitles. Therefore I cannot comment on how much better or worse it is from the English featurette. Rounding up the extras is a set of cast and crew bios.
Much as I enjoyed watching "Real Women Have Curves", its running time of just over 80 minutes is way too short and it leaves several important issues unresolved. Unless there is a sequel in the works that I don't know of, this movie deserves a more respectful closure equal to the high standards that it has exhibited throughout. Going by the many praises sung by critics about this movie, I guess they are more enamored by the message that it carries than the overall structure of the story. As the film ended, my thoughts immediately circled around questions like "whatever happened to so and so?" and "what did she do next?". Indeed, whatever happened to stories with a proper ending? It might be hard to overlook such a shortcoming but fortunately this movie is definitely more than the sum of its parts.