Size Queens

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O f you couldn’t tell from the title, Real Women Have Curves (dir. Patricia Cardoso) has a message. Actually, it has several, but “real women have curves” is its raison d’etre; the other worthy causes are just along for the ride. Like, say, Los Angeles sweatshops, safer sex, class conflict, Mexican heritage, education, family values, business ethics, religion, abstinence, menopause, youngest child syndrome, Apple laptops (oops, maybe that was product placement), to name just a few. Not that there’s anything wrong with a film jam-packed with messages (and not that there’s anything wrong with a well-meaning little film taking money from The Man to make it to the big screen). In fact, there’s a lot that’s right with this movie, and each message is delivered with more joie de vivre than even the most earnest of Oprah’s “do-gooder” episodes.
     The trouble is, while “earnest” is admirable in an accountant or on the Lifetime network, it can be cloying on the big screen. (Hence my decision to avoid My Big Fat Greek Wedding; while the movie itself may not be earnest — I wouldn’t know — I’ve heard too much about its humble, earnest back-story to get fired up about it.)

     Real Women tells the story of Ana (eighteen-year-old America Ferrera in her film debut), a Mexican-American teenager in East L.A. who is torn between family obligation and a desire to get the hell out of Dodge — specifically, to Columbia University on a scholarship. It takes place during the summer after her high school graduation; Ana works in her sister Estela’s dress factory-slash-sweatshop by day and sneaks off at night to write her college essays and date a rich-ish skinny white boy called Jimmy (who drives his mom’s Volvo and, yes, has an Apple laptop). The reason for all the sneaking around is Ana’s mother Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros of Storytelling and Chuck and Buck), who’s been working since she was thirteen and is ready for a break, a son-in-law, and a few grandkids. She’s given up hope on Estela ever marrying — after all, Estela is twenty-nine and pushing two hundred pounds. However, she’s holding out hope for her youngest, who might be a “butterball” with “enormous breasts” but, with a bit of work, could be wifely material. Of course, our feisty heroine (you go, girl!) has other ideas, and being grounded for life (or at least until menopause) doesn’t quite mesh with her goals. Yes, she has goals! So it’s not just another teen movie, you see? Like the city it’s set in, Real Women is an irony-free zone.
     Actually, the movie is at its best when the plot veers closest to all those other teen movies, because that’s when Ana’s brash talk and curvaceous bod are most defiantly — and triumphantly — out of place. When Jimmy tells Ana, on their first date, “You have a beautiful face,” and she responds impishly, “Just my face . . . ?” it’s a revelation. He blushes and stutters and can only nod mutely when she persists, “Are you looking at my breasts?” (They are, indeed, enormous.) But she tells her sister, “You’re sweating for Bloomingdale’s!” or when she shoves a piece of cake in her mouth after her mother tells her to watch her figure, it’s uplifting in that PBS documentary kind of way.
     Real Women is based on a play by Josefina Lopez, who used to work in her sister’s dress factory and was told by her high school teacher that she’d have to lose weight if she wanted a career in acting. The script, then — like so many semi-autobiographical artistic endeavors before it — creates a more highly evolved version of the person she was; she gives Ana lines she perhaps wishes she’d had the balls (or rather labes) to deliver. Ana may look like a real woman, but she’s imbued with a superhuman, post-spinach-Popeye, I-drank-the-gummiberry-juice brand of self-confidence, and she feels fantastic, thanks.
     The rousing “tell ’em, sister!” scene takes place on a particularly sweaty day in the sweatshop; Ana is operating the steam iron and is appropriately damp. Her sister won’t turn on the fan because it blows dust onto the dresses, so Ana starts to strip (Nelly would be so proud). And the curves? This is no Bridget Jones-style “ballooning” to a size — gasp! — eight, this is honest-to-goodness flesh on the bones, what my grandmother liked to call “bonny.” Ana’s mother is horrified, naturally, but the other workers — size sixteen women assembling size six dresses for pennies an hour — are touched. The more her mother rails about how disgusting it is, how she should be ashamed, the more layers Ana removes, until she’s standing at the ironing board in her undies. Sisterly solidarity kicks in and everyone except Carmen starts to undress, rallying each other with lines like, “You think those are stretch marks? I’ll show you stretch marks!” Somehow the radio gets turned on and they all dance around the factory in their skivvies.
     A more tender “love me, love my curves” moment is the scene when Ana loses her virginity to Jimmy — despite, or perhaps because of, her mother’s admonishment that a man who “eats the cake before the wedding” may never come back for more. You can’t knock a film for promoting prophylactics among teens, so I’ll try and forgive the after-school special look on Ana’s face when she pulls a condom from her bag and hands it to Jimmy. At this point Jimmy does what any out-of-his-league teenager would do: He turns out the light. And because Spanish 101 didn’t cover this particular scenario, he asks Ana, “How do you say ‘damn’ [as in, ‘day-yam’] in Spanish?” (You have to admit it’s better than “Donde está la estación del tren?”) But the loveable heroine has, you guessed it, her own ideas: “Turn the lights on, I want you to see me. This is what I look like,” she says. Like every other teen romance out there, it sets virgins up for massive disappointment — who do you know who’s had a first time like that, really? — but at least they look like two normal kids having sex.
     I just feel bad for poor Jimmy: Little does he know that it’s probably gonna be another decade before he gets to have sex with a woman so body-confident (college? puh-lease) — and that’s the real gummiberry juice of hot sex.  

Real Women Have Curves opens October 18.

Official website: http://www.realwomenhavecurves.com/

Emma Taylor Contributing editor Emma Taylor is one half of “Em & Lo,” and has been a near-expert at Nerve for the past five years. Together with her better half, Lo, she has written Nerve’s two original books, “The Big Bang” (July ’03) and “Nerve’s Guide to Sex Etiquette” (February ’04). She writes for Men’s Journal, Glamour, The Guardian (U.K.) and EmandLo.com. She can currently be heard starring on Nerve’s voicemail system.