Dir: Patricia Cardoso. US. 2002. 90mins

How ironic that the biggest crowd-pleaser at last week's Sundance Film Festival and winner of its prestigious audience award is made for television. Delighted cinema audiences who cheered and clapped in theatres at Park City will be the only ones in the US to participate in that collective experience, a shame since so few films provoke such an enthusiastic reaction. It also serves as a telling sign that US pay-TV channel HBO - through its film-making division HBO Pictures - is starting to transform US independent film just as it has done the television landscape. While HBO resisted numerous offers from domestic theatrical buyers at Sundance, international distributors should seek a look at this small charmer which has the same working-class comic punch as The Full Monty. Critics will vigorously support it and its TV value is indisputable.

Like The Laramie Project and Hysterical Blindness, HBO's other two dramatic films at Sundance, Real Women Have Curves is based on a stage play. Unlike them, however, it possesses social and emotional authenticity and a deep understanding of the characters, mostly Latinas in east Los Angeles. But Colombian-born director Patricia Cardoso does not restrict her film to the specifics of east LA. Instead the film operates on several universal levels, acting as a tale of mother/daughter conflict, as a study of ethnic minorities in western society and as a story of women and the generational differences between them.

A tightly structured adaptation of the play by Josefina Lopez, Cardoso and her screenwriters Lopez and producer George LaVoo waste no time in establishing the central conflict . Curvaceous 18-year-old Ana (America Ferrara) is the youngest of two daughters in an east LA Latino family. She is a talented student about to graduate from high school whose teacher (George Lopez) thinks she could win a scholarship to a good university. Holding her back, however, is her loyalty to her family and her possessive mother Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros), who thinks she should start working to help the family before finding a husband and having children. Carmen has already given up on Ana's older sister Estela (Ingrid Oliu) who runs a garment factory but who has failed to find a husband.

On leaving school, the frustrated Ana struggles against her own desire to flee the nest and reluctantly agrees to help Carmen and Estela in the factory for the summer. She is outraged at the prices Estela is paid for her tiny dresses which will be worn by women of a different class and a different size. Slowly, Ana starts to usurp her mother's beliefs that slim is good and that women were made to have children and look after their husbands. As the gulf between the two widens, Ana starts to prepare to take charge of her own life. A subplot about a romance between Ana and a Beverly Hills boy only serves to enhance Ana's journey and includes a particularly well-played scene in which she loses her virginity.

The Sundance jury saw fit to bestow a special award on the performances of America Ferrara and Lupe Ontiveros, who shine in the lead roles. Ferrara combines the irritability of adolescence with the confidence of impending womanhood and a tightening grasp on her own identity. Ontiveros, so good in Miguel Arteta's Chuck & Buck, is a delight as the old-fashioned Carmen, whose life is dictated by her family's needs, her need for her family and the addiction of telenovelas. The affection Cardoso feels for her characters is evident, bringing a warmth to the movie which makes the mother/daughter differences even more touching. There are also some priceless one-liners and two show-stopping moments, one in which Carmen orders Ana not to take another bite of flan, the other when Ana persuades the women in the factory to disrobe and be proud of their bodies. Women everywhere will respond with cheers.

Prod cos: HBO Pictures, LaVoo Films
Int'l sales: HBO Enterprises.
Prods: George LaVoo, Effie T Brown
Scr: LaVoo, Josefina Lopez, from the play by Lopez
Cinematography: Jim Denault.
Prod des: Brigitte Broch
Ed: Sloan Kelvin
Music: Emma Garcia De Mantilla
Main cast: America Ferrara, Lupe Ontiveros, Ingrid Oliu, George Lopez, Jorge Evera Jr, Felipe De Alba