An empowering comedy that's big on laughs

Preview by Jack Foley

THE Sundance Film Festival is always a safe bet for unearthing some of the best emerging talent in independent film-making. Already this year, for instance, some of the better films of the past 12 months have been those that played to acclaim at Sundance, such as Jennifer Aniston's The Good Girl and Robin Williams in One Hour Photo.

Well, the winner of the Sundance 2002 Audience Award and Special Jury Prize is another smart little movie, Real Women Have Curves, which rated as one of the feelgood movies of the year when it opened in America.

The film is the debut feature from Patricia Cardoso, who won an Academy Award for her short film, The Water Carrier, and marks an astonishing acting debut for its young star, America Ferrera.

The film tells the story of a curvaceous 18-year-old (Ferrera), with a bright future ahead of her, who is forced by her overbearing mother (Lupe Ontiveros, of As Good As It Gets) to take a job at her sister's dress-making factory instead of fulfilling her potential at college.

Once at the factory, Ferrera is forced to spend hours creating elegant gowns for women whose lives are nothing like her own, but eventually comes to appreciate the sacrifices made by her colleagues and encourages them to love every curve of their bodies and to appreciate what makes them different from everyone else - to the horror of her mother, who insists that every woman should be thin.

As such, a battle of wills develops between the two women, as Ferrera bids to escape the confines of her life in LA, in order to make a fresh start for herself in New York. The ensuing 86 minutes, while falling into the 'chick flick' category, is an absorbing, affecting and jovial movie, which also has plenty to say about our image-obsessed society.

Produced and co-written by George LaVoo and Josefina Lopez, Real Women Have Curves first premiered, in theatrical form, at the Teatro de la Esperanze in San Francisco in 1990, and has continued to play to favourable reviews at the Seattle Group Theatre, Sarasota's Asolo Theatre, Dallas Theatre Centre, Victory Gardens in Chicago and many colleges and universities.

It is partly based on Lopez's real-life experiences as an undocumented worker in an East LA sewing factory and the characters and situations 'are composites of women I have worked with and the stories we exchanged'.

Her mother was a seamstress and her older sister sewed for Catalina. Another sister used her settlement from a car accident to buy a small factory, which is where Lopez worked and drew inspiration.

The play which resulted was immediately optioned by producer, George LaVoo, after he saw it in December 1998 and both he and Lopez subsequently drafted a screenplay which, among other things, changed the focus to the character portrayed by Ferrera.

After it debuted at Sundance, it earned the Dramatic Audience Award and a Special Acting Prize for its co-stars, Ferrera and Ontiveros, before opening the prestigious New Director/New Films series at New York's Museum of Modern Art and being selected for both the Toronto and San Sebastian Film Festivals. LaVoo and Lopez also shared the coveted 2002 Humanitas Prize for their screenplay.

The film opens in UK cinemas in January 2003 and deserves to find a big audience. It could even by next year's My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

What the US critics said...


Critics in America were virtually unanimous in their praise for the film. Hollywood Reporter wrote that 'what enlivens this film, beyond the astute direction of Cardoso and beautifully detailed performances by all of the actors, is a note of defiance over social dictates', while the San Francisco Chronicle said that it is 'a warm, funny family story that defies popular notions about immigrant families'.

The New York Times referred to it as 'effervescent and satisfying, a crowd pleaser that does not condescend', while the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that 'what's most refreshing about Real Women Have Curves is its unforced comedy-drama and its relaxed, natural-seeming actors'.

Slant Magazine said that the film 'wears its empowerment on its sleeve but even its worst harangues are easy to swallow thanks to remarkable performances by Ferrera and Ontiveros', while the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that it was 'enormously entertaining for moviegoers of any age'.

E! Online awarded it a B+ and wrote that 'it's rare to see a film in which the emotional climax involves big, beautiful women stripping to their panties and bras', while Entertainment Weekly said that 'it's refreshingly low on the kind of Cinema of Empowerment pedantry that often goes along with stories about ethnic families, sweatshop working conditions, or women confronting issues of weight and body image'.

FilmCritic.com, meanwhile, felt that 'Ferrara has so much natural charisma her limited acting experience doesn't really show'.

The final two words, however, go to LA Times - which described it as 'a winning directorial debut for Patricia Cardoso, who gracefully brings to the screen George LaVoo and Josefina Lopez's adaptation of Lopez's popular 1990 play' - and to the New York Post, which summed it up as having 'an across-the-board, My Big Fat Greek Wedding-style appeal'.

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