Beauty might lie in the eye of the beholder, but it also rests firmly in one's self image as well as that of whatever societal norms might be in place at any given time. While full-bodied women were once the rage (think of the Rubenesque paintings), the trim and athletic look is what's currently in, even if the majority of women don't fall into that category.
That discrepancy and both the internal and external pressures to fit into that mold obviously cause a great deal of distress among many women. That's particularly true for younger ones who've been subjected to such mindsets and imagery for most of their lives.
That's part of what fuels "Real Women Have Curves," a coming of age story about an overweight young woman coming to grips with that and other aspects of her unhappy life. Based on the play by Josefina Lopez (making her film debut) - who co-wrote the screenplay with George LaVoo ("Frisk") - the film follows its protagonist in the summer after her high school graduation and focuses on her overcoming her self-doubts and over-critical mother.
Such a story could obviously be told in various ways, including as a straight drama, comedy or a combination of both. Director Patricia Cardoso (making her feature-length debut) has opted to make it as something of the latter, although the drama far outweighs the comedic aspects that often feel a bit forced.
The film also never really manages to transcend its after school special posturing and style, some of the dialogue is far too on the nose and its delivery too stiff, and the effort occasionally wallows in melodrama. Cardoso tries to temper such histrionic moments with those various bits of amusing or humorous material. The result of that, however, is more cute than funny and the overall story isn't as moving or uplifting as it should and could have been.
The effort, though, does benefit from the daughter-mother pairing and related strife embodied by newcomer America Ferrera and veteran Lupe Ontiveros ("Chuck & Buck," "As Good As It Gets"). While we've seen the sulking teen and overbearing mother bit many times before, the two actresses bring enough freshness and vigor to their roles and the relationship to overcome the stereotypical conventions.
As the unhappy high school graduate, Ferrera evokes thoughts of Michelle Rodriguez in her debut role, "Girlfight" (albeit without the boxing angle), and brings a great deal of realism to her part. Playing the source of her constant pain in the side, as well as much of the film's humorous material, Ontiveros is quite good. While her character occasionally borders on caricature, the actress is fun to watch in the role.
Brian Sites (making his feature debut) holds his own as a guy who befriends and then secretly dates Ana, and it's a nice change of pace to see such a young male character who sees a woman for who she really is. Unfortunately, Ingrid Oliu ("Flatliners," "Stand and Deliver") gets all of the melodramatic material and simply can't deliver her stiffly-written dialogue without it coming off as just that.
Jorge Cevera Jr. ("Picking up the Pieces," "Bulletproof") and Felipe De Alba (who returns to the big screen after nearly a 50 year absence) are decent as the father and grandfather respectively, but don't get much time to do much with their characters. That also holds true for George Lopez ("Bread and Roses," "Ski Patrol") who plays the clichéd, after school special-like high school teacher who prods on his student to better things.
It's possible that the film - which was originally slated for a direct to HBO release - will catch on with certain segments of the viewing audience. Yet, it's not quite arty enough in an independent film sort of way to work in that regard, while it's not commercial enough as a mainstream release to overcome the varying problems and deficiencies it possesses.
As it stands - and notwithstanding the two good performances from its leads as well as some of its PG-13 rated content - the film feels more suited as one of those old and educational after school TV specials than as a full-length feature. Despite its admirable intentions, "Real Women Have Curves" rates as just a 5 out of 10.