The quotidian brilliance of ‘Gloria Bell’

Julianne Moore in 'Gloria Bell' (2019) is pictured here.

Gloria Bell always sings along. Julianne Moore, the titular star of Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio’s reimagining of 2013’s “Gloria,” made in his home country, seems to know the words to every song that comes out of the speakers. She might be in her car on the way to work, doing laundry or dancing along to her namesake tune at a wedding. And, with boundless exuberance, she always belts it out.

In a film that feels as naturalistic as life itself, small scenes like Gloria singing in her car or repeatedly discovering a neighbor’s Sphinx cat in her apartment, tell us exactly who Gloria is. We also are cued into other descriptors for her early on; she is a fifty-something divorcee with two grown children. A crappy job at a car insurance company pays her bills. Gloria anguishes over how to tell her landlord that her son, who lives above her, appears to have serious mental health issues. She goes to singles disco nights and, as the cliche says, dances like nobody’s watching.

Spelling out a long list of labels for Gloria feels foolish — she is not someone who can be encapsulated in titles or life situations. Yet she carries an air of everydayness that, in its familiarity, makes her extraordinary. The genius of Gloria Bell as a character lies in her ability to manifest as a caricature that we all know and admire. 

Everybody knows somebody like Gloria. Perhaps she’s an aunt’s fiercely funny friend whom you’ve met once or twice but feel like you’ve known intimately for years. Or maybe she’s a neighbor who invites you inside every time you see her when you’re out walking. Critically, we come away from our interactions with her happier than we were going in. With a word, Gloria effortlessly diffuses a hint of tension that arises over a dinner conversation about gun control. She throws her arm around a co-worker and yells out at the corporate “man” to suck it. 

Gloria is decidedly not a happy-go-lucky imbecile we patronizingly admire, nor is she a repackaged, grown-up version of a manic pixie dream girl. Gloria lives an authentic life, clutter and all. The mother of her grandson is a transient free spirit, leaving Gloria’s son (Michael Cera) to take care of the toddler without the foggiest clue of her whereabouts. Gloria wants to help, reminding him that she’s always there to babysit or just to keep them company, but there is an imperceptible wall of pride, or regret, or something else, between them. Gloria — and the audience — can’t tell.

Her daughter Anne (Caren Pistorius) is moving to Sweden, following a breezy big-wave surfer. Gloria lets slip at a party with her ex-husband (Brad Garrett) that Anne is pregnant. He didn’t know. When Gloria takes her to the airport, she initially complies with Anne’s request to stay in the car. Driving away, her emotions get the better of her, and she runs into the terminal, but Anne is already through security; in this post-9/11 world she is as good as gone. Gloria must cry alone.

Portrayed with a sensitive, lived-in vibrance by Julianne Moore, Gloria remains herself, not defiantly or triumphantly so, but rather because it’s all she’s ever done or ever will do. She chooses, in the words of Nora Ephron, to be the heroine of her own story. Gloria is utterly ordinary yet quietly transfixing. So much so, in fact, that this article was supposed to be a review of “Gloria Bell,” the movie. But Gloria Bell, the woman, gently commandeers the spotlight without trying to do so. We could have discussed Lelio’s empathetic direction, or John Tuturro’s layered, vulnerable performance as Gloria’s patsy of a love interest, Arnold. But neither can hold a candle to the unassuming Gloria Bell, who is unexceptionally exceptional, ordinarily extraordinary and, above all, refreshingly, radically, expansively real.