Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell, a remake of his Chilean film Gloria from six years ago, follows the broad outline of a light dramedy about a middle-aged woman getting, as the Terry McMillan phrase goes, her groove back. Gloria (Julianne Moore) is fiftysomething, gainfully employed, outwardly cheerful and maybe a little bit lonely. Her children are grown, her divorce long since finalized, and she even has a cute-movie-ready hobby: We first see her out at a dance club, populated by other middle-aged folks, eyes searching and hopeful. She likes to dance, though a lot of her moves are tentative.
Early in the movie, Gloria meets Arnold (John Turturro). They dance together, and soon they’re in a bona fide relationship–passionate, but seemingly with potential that extends beyond a sexy post-club fling. Re-energized sex life… romantic restaurants… her groove! Is it back?! But with the basic framework of a middle-age-revitalization story in place, Lelio feels free to dance around it. Stories like this, especially when they’re focused on providing some degree of fantastical wish-fulfillment, are often belabored with exposition about the protagonist’s normal, perhaps humdrum life. In Gloria Bell, we learn a lot of details about Gloria’s life with a quickness and a clarity that recalls Greta Gerwig or Noah Baumbach (he even captures Moore singing along in her car, alone, in a few shots that recall the intimacy of Gerwig’s earliest moments in Baumbach’s Greenberg). She works for some kind of insurance firm, mostly on the phones. Her young-ish son (Michael Cera) is a single parent to an infant. Gloria does not own a cat, but a hairless one keeps slipping into her apartment somehow. All of this plays out in concise and well-observed micro-scenes, with a near pathological avoidance of overstaying their welcome.
The film movies so quickly, in fact, that it’s jarring when we first hear Arnold’s name; he and Gloria have been going together for some time, and (unless I missed a casual use earlier) she first says his name out loud when she’s introducing him to her family: the grown kids, plus the re-married ex-husband (Brad Garrett). This scene, at her son’s birthday party, is so full of awkward realness–the miniature semi-agonies of small-talk among people who know each other very well, but are not always comfortable together; the room full of adults still trying to figure out how they fit into each other’s lives–that any lingering illusions about groove re-acquisition quickly fade.
This sequence is much longer than any that precede it; the movie keeps its relatively concise cutting, but it can only cut slightly further into the evening, not out of the sequence entirely. It’s a turning point that I won’t spoil, not that Gloria Bell is an intricately plotted movie. It mostly just moves along, capturing moments with a keen eye and the sharp eyes of Lelio and cinematographer Natasha Braie (she shot the far more decadent and menacing but similarly pleasing The Neon Demon). But it’s obvious after this point that Gloria is not going to find the hobby, the job, or the new man that single-handedly takes her to the next level of happiness. Gloria Bell is uncommonly clear-eyed about the hard work of happiness, and the capriciousness of it. As Gloria, Moore is not impossibly sunny, and in fact she has moments of low-key heartbreak, even as she tries to maintain a positive attitude. But she has an irrepressible quality, something Moore often channels into heavy drama. She won an Oscar a few years back for playing a woman fighting her way through the early throes of Alzheimer’s in Still Alice. It was wrenching work, but Gloria Bell, in telling a “smaller” story, gives her a richer range of emotions.
Something unexpected struck me watching this movie, beyond even its uncommonly sensitive and smart portrayal of middle age. I tend to think of these groove-back stories (even those, like this one, that belong to the subgenre in broad outlines only) as belonging to baby boomers, who have reigned over middle age for most of my lifetime. But Julianne Moore was born in 1960, and her character is conceivably a few years younger than that (it’s not specified, but she’s said to have married in 1986, with children following in the late ’80s to early ’90s). That doesn’t quite put her into Generation X, but at least she’s on the cusp between the two, sharing as much culturally with early Xers as she would with late Boomers. Gloria doesn’t “read” as Gen-X in obvious ways, though the cheesy pop-rock songs she favors for car-singing and dance-club escapades skew more ’70s and ’80s than the classic-rock fetishism of a stereotypical boomer. Certainly there are plenty of boomers who live in similarly modest apartments after divorces, navigating the testy waters of middle-age dating, and Gloria’s hopeful warmth will remind plenty of audience members of their boomer moms.
But the readjustment of expectations in this groove-back story does feel like a generational shift at work, intentional or not (Lelio, for what it’s worth, was born in 1974 and therefore unmistakably Gen-X in age, though it can be tricky to know how generational perceptions travel across country lines). Gloria makes no mention of a comfy retirement (though I suppose that’s arguably a point in the “boomer” column). Even in an exciting new relationship, no one is whisking her off to lavish vacations–she proposes a trip to Spain at one point, impulsively–or performing adjustments to her status quo that are really just confirmations of her privilege. She isn’t assigned any stereotypical Gen-X conflicts about authenticity or selling out, but there’s a modesty to life that feels like an implicit rejection of boomer upward mobility.
If Turturro’s Arnold may be a little closer to the boomer side–the actor is, though he too seems to be playing someone who might be a few years younger than his actual early 60s age; it’s always hard to tell with performers, like Moore and Turturro, who age so crazy gracefully–it doesn’t reflect especially well on him. He chafes against his responsibilities as a father to two (grown) daughters, and also acquiesces to them constantly, prone to acting out in teenage-throwback snits. This may, granted, be more of a male characteristic than a boomer one. But viewed generationally, Arnold recalls boomer-male entitlement more than Xer-male cynicism, and his character does form a contrast with Gloria.
Generation X was once the subject of much media attention, but now seems more or less forgotten in the rush to call several generations’ worth of newer humans “millennials”–think of the multiple recent opinion-poll breakdowns that skipped right over people who are currently in their 40s and early 50s. Gloria Bell might be represented in those polls, but spiritually, she feels skipped-over, with that Gen-X middle-child, fend-for-yourself vibe. Whatever generation he’s chronicling, intentionally or not, Lelio is taking a long, endearing look at lives that a lot of movies pass over.