Showcased at Sundance back in 2005, How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer finally makes its way to theaters thank no doubt to the increased profile of star America Ferrera, better known these days for her role on Ugly Betty. Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome arrival and a nice alternative to what we typically consider summer entertainment at the movies. Writer-director Reidel’s film may be slight and it may be flawed, but it’s also a lovingly crafted portrait of a kind of life not often seen on the big screen.
Reidel offers up three generations of Garcia “girls”: teenage Blanca (Ferrera) is lazing about her small Arizona town in the summer before her senior year of high school, pursuing a stop-and-start romance with a mysterious outsider; her middle-aged mom, Lolita (Peña), is facing up to a life of loneliness and fending off advances from a lecherous married customer at her butcher shop; and Lolita’s mother Genoveva (Gallardo) is engaged in a belated sexual awakening in her twilight years, thanks to driving lessons she gets from her shy, tender gardener.
All three threads take female sexuality at each stage of life seriously, and Reidel also offers a rich portrait of a border town full of Mexican-Americans without getting bogged down in lectures about the immigrant experience. It’s a glimpse into a world that most people don’t get to see without the filter of either a white male lead or forced Hollywood-style sentimentality (as in the recent Under the Same Moon), and Reidel immerses herself so deeply in it that she gets a little lost, and the movie often ends up slack and meandering.
Certain subdued, quiet moments work exceptionally well (a long take of Peña almost silently illustrating Lolita’s oppressive solitude is a marvel of acting), but others are just slow rides to nowhere. As the characters start to learn about what they truly want and how to get it, the dialogue turns a little obvious and clumsy, and the lax pace becomes a liability (the movie runs a little more than two hours). For its honest, lived-in performances and evocative look at a neglected locale, though, Garcia Girls is worth the roundabout journey.