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How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer (R)

America Ferrera is shown in a scene from, "How the Garcia Sisters Spent Their Summer." Photo:Maya Releasing.
America Ferrera is shown in a scene from, "How the Garcia Sisters Spent Their Summer." Photo:Maya Releasing.

** ½

By Christy Lemire, Associated Press

Before she tried on a pair of magical pants or transformed herself as the award-winning star of Ugly Betty, America Ferrera appeared in the indie charmer How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer.

The movie’s been kicking around at festivals since 2005 and is just now being released theatrically. But it further reveals Ferrera’s naturally lovely screen presence, something which was first on display in her acclaimed but little-seen 2002 debut Real Women Have Curves. Here, she plays the youngest among three generations of women who discover themselves, and their sexuality, during a long, hot summer in an Arizona border town.

Writer-director Georgina Garcia Reidel was inspired by her own 70-year-old grandmother living in sleepy Somerton, Ariz., and the strength of her obviously low-budget feature debut comes from the intimate simplicity of her storytelling. Her observations are sweet and funny and even risqué, and by presenting them in a stripped-down way, she makes them more relatable than if she’d slathered them in treacly sentiment.

Ferrera co-stars as Blanca, a 17-year-old virgin who’s drawn to an older bad boy, Sal (Leo Minaya). He’s new to town and therefore perceived as dangerous and exciting. Besides, she and her equally bored friends have nothing better to do. A snippet of dialogue: ”Let’s call someone.” ”There’s nobody to call.” (Reidel definitely gets the rhythms of small-town life, down to the Greek chorus of elderly Mexican gentlemen who sit on the same bench, day after day, talking about nothing.)

Meanwhile, Blanca’s divorced mother, Lolita (Elizabeth Peña), becomes preoccupied by both her doting co-worker at the butcher shop (Rick Najera) and a frequent customer (Steven Bauer) who shamelessly hits on her despite being married. Mostly she’s just lonely, though, sitting on the couch smoking and drinking beers by herself until she falls asleep. (This particular scene, which could have had great poignancy, feels jarring because it’s shot so poorly.)

And then there’s the matriarch, Doña Genoveva (TV and film veteran Lucy Gallardo), who jump-starts all the film’s action when she impulsively buys a beat-up pickup truck — even though she doesn’t know how to drive. After many years of living a quiet, conservative life alone, she’s startled to find herself falling for her gardener (Jorge Cervera), who has kindly offered to give her driving lessons. This usually consists of her stalling out, over and over, down the same stretch of dirt road.

So maybe it’s obvious where all these women’s story lines will end up. And yeah, the acting by the supporting cast can be a little stiff, though all three stars seem to be performing effortlessly.

What’s refreshing about Garcia Girls is that it presents a vivid slice of Mexican-American family life that anyone can connect with, regardless of ethnicity. And Reidel also deserves credit for depicting the possibility of finding love at all ages, something that larger and more mainstream movies so often shy away from showing.

Cast: Elizabeth Peña, America Ferrera, Lucy Gallardo, Steven Bauer

Writer-director: Georgina Riedel

Producers: Olga Arana, Jose C. Mangual, Georgina Riedel

A Maya Releasing film. Sexual content and some language. Running time: 128 minutes. Playing at area theaters.

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