"Real Women Have Curves," by first-time director Patricia Cardoso, is a coming-of-age tale about a young Mexican American woman who battles racism, sexism and thin-ism to accept her body, find love and build a future for herself. It's an HBO production and bears some of the earnest, awkwardly expository earmarks of a TV movie. But the film features the wonderful screen debut of a promising young actress as well as a bravura performance by a little-seen veteran.

America Ferrera plays Ana Garcia, a bright teenager who makes a long bus journey every day from her East Los Angeles neighborhood to attend high school in Beverly Hills. On the verge of graduating, Ana is clearly smart enough and motivated enough to get a college scholarship; her domineering, hypochondriac mother, Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros) has other ideas. "Tomorrow she goes to the factory to sew, with us," Carmen says on Ana's graduation day.

"Real Women Have Curves" follows Ana through that summer as she works in her sister's sewing factory (which she immediately recognizes as a sweatshop), radicalizes her fellow workers, begins to date one of her classmates, and dares to fight her parents' assumptions about the life she is meant to lead. Meanwhile, she must endure her mother's constant criticisms about her weight ("Look at her, she's as big as the cake," Carmen says during Ana's graduation party). During one of the film's most touching scenes she orders her boyfriend, Jimmy, to keep the lights on during an intimate moment so he can see who she really is.

Adapted from a play by Josefina Lopez, "Real Women Have Curves" has been compared to "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," no doubt because, as in that movie, here the fat girl wins in the end. At its best, "Real Women Have Curves" is about much more than that.

Handsomely shot by cinematographer Jim Denault, the film immerses the audience in Ana's world, its mosaic of colors and sounds and people, to create a vivid cinematic portrait not only of one girl but of an entire community. Its melodrama and stock confrontations may be strictly prime time, but the movie is saved by the filmmakers' deep affection and familiarity with Ana's life, as well as by Ferrera's disarmingly sweet persona and a tough but sympathetic performance by Ontiveros. The final shot of "Real Women Have Curves" is of Ana sashaying voluptuously into her promising future, and by that time Ferrera -- and the movie -- have earned every triumphant step.

Real Women Have Curves (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content and language.

Ana (America Ferrera) has plus-size promise, and ambition, in "Real Women Have Curves."