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A promising debut

Real Women Have Curves (PG-13) (90 min.) _ The cross-cultural appeal that has made My Big Fat Greek Wedding a hit may help Real Women Have Curves at the box office. Director Patricia Cardoso's first film features another unconventionally attractive young woman bridling at family customs, this time from a Latino perspective. Call it My Big Fat Mexican Coming-of-Age.

America Ferrera, above, a plus-sized newcomer with a killer smile, plays Ana Garcia, who travels from her east Los Angeles home each day to attend Beverly Hills High School. She's smart enough to take her education further, but her parents can't afford it. Nor does her mother, Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros, As Good As It Gets), believe she deserves the chance. Ana gets shoved into her sister's dressmaking shop, same as her mother and several other women who quietly accepted such a fate.

Made by HBO Films, then considered good enough for theatrical release, Real Women Have Curves still possesses a small quality that would play better on television. The elemental progression of the plot and repetition of the dress factory's financial woes are permissible at home, where bathroom and snack breaks are convenient.

Even with those structural weaknesses, Cardoso created an interesting film on several counts. Latino culture gets loving attention, from exotic street art to nuclear family preservation to an occasionally inspired musical score by Heitor Pereira. The mother-daughter dynamic is examined on two levels: Carmen's constant berating of Ana for being overweight and her switching authority roles at work with her older daughter Estela (Ingrid Oliu).

Mostly, there is Ferrera to admire. Ana's early predicaments have her playing sullen almost too perfectly, making us wonder if we can ever cheer for her. When a classmate (Brian Sites) starts showing interest, her face and posture blossom into the kind of beauty that can't be missed, even if the packaging isn't classically attractive. When Ana finally speaks out against the destiny others planned for her, it's by leading a group act of comical defiance that will be a touchstone for any woman wearing double-digit sizes.

Real Women Have Curves won't escape comparisons with My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but the movie it resembles in importance is Girlfight (2000), a miniature Rocky with then-unknown Michelle Rodriguez (The Fast and the Furious, Blue Crush) throwing the punches. Cardoso's movie is an equally admirable peek at Latino culture that will likely be remembered as Ferrera's debut and not much else. Judging from her performance here, that will be enough. B