You Can Keep Your Betty White: Gloria

01/15/2014 4:00 AM |

Gloria
Directed by Sebastián Leilo

The conceit isn’t unlike a mumblecore movie’s: a woman who wears vintage 80s frames and works a crappy office job faces an existential crisis, which she tries to work through with dancing and some casual sex. But the pivotal difference is that the titular Gloria is a middle-aged, divorced mother of two adult children—someone who’s done a lot more living and has a lot more to lose than a twentysomething. (She does however empathize with the struggles of Chile’s youth, and several street scenes include students protesting economic equality.) Eschewing the “wacky old people” clichés of the The Bucket List or Tough Guys, the story achieves lightness and believability in its many small details—checking how much hair she got on her hot-wax strip before a date, softly singing pop songs to herself in the car, smoking a cigarette after yoga class—which are given as much weight as the more dramatic scenes with her family or boyfriend, Rodolfo. This balance also subtly conveys the realities of someone who lives alone, a fact that is usually either screamed or omitted in cinematic depictions of the elderly.

As is true of any character study, much of Gloria’s naturalism is attributable to the cast, here in terms of both performance and dialogue, which they improvised and reworked during rehearsals. But what truly makes the film riveting is Paulina García’s performance as the title character—and she appears in nearly every shot. With a wide, truly contagious smile, García exudes a lived-in confidence and control with every movement. Undoubtedly the most memorable scene of the film comes when Rodolfo, an Irish goodbye-prone sexagenarian who’s still very much stuck in the past, wants to abandon a romantic weekend after his ex-wife gets into an accident. The intensity with which García walks to the door as if to leave in frustration, then turns around and disrobes (revealing a perfectly manicured strip of pubic hair) is truly electric. You can keep your foul-mouthed Betty White—this is what the Red Hat Society should be toasting.

Opens January 24