“The Glorias,” Julie Taymor’s on-the-road biopic celebrating Gloria Steinem, falls short as a character portrait of the famed feminist journalist and activist. But the movie, streaming on Amazon Prime starting Friday, contains some extraordinary subjects, and Taymor dramatizes them with stellar historical elements and colorful character dynamics.
Taymor, the stage director and filmmaker whose movie credits include “Titus” and “Frida,” has adapted Steinem’s book “My Life on the Road” (Sarah Ruhl cowrote the screenplay) into a nonlinear journey through both Steinem’s life and the history of second-wave feminism. Four actresses portray Steinem, at different ages.
In black-and-white passages that illustrate Taymor’s imaginative bent, the four Glorias periodically appear together in a bus and reflect on experiences that have shaped their combined self.
Childhood segments, set in 1940s Ohio and starring Ryan Kiera Armstrong and Lulu Wilson, feature Gloria’s father, Leo (Timothy Hutton), a traveling salesman whose love of the road Gloria has apparently inherited. Leo’s constant uprooting of the family distresses Gloria’s mother, Ruth (Enid Graham), a former aspiring journalist whose stories about working in that woman-unfriendly profession ignite in her young daughter a determination to change the picture.
Foremost, we follow the adult Gloria as she meets women while traveling and learns from them.
In India, the 20-something Gloria, played by Alicia Vikander, talks to women affected by the caste system.
In New York, she’s a talented young journalist working for men who expect her to write lightweight articles and make coffee.
Julianne Moore plays the more confident and established middle-age Gloria, in scenes set in the 1960s and 1970s. She co-founds Ms. magazine, speaks at events, and is labeled the “face of feminism.” Interviewers who ask why she’s unmarried peeve her to no end.
Taymor peppers Moore’s segments with feminist notables, many of them nonwhite, and weaves actual news footage into the fictional material. These activists and big personalities — Dorothy Pittman Hughes (Janelle Monae), Florynce Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), Bella Abzug (Bette Midler), Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero), Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez) — influence and embolden Gloria.
Despite the fantasy passages, this is largely a conventional biopic, and, like the recent “Harriet” and the RBG-themed “On the Basis of Sex,” it doesn’t do its exceptional heroine justice.
While Taymor satisfyingly depicts what Steinem has accomplished, and while Moore and, especially, Vikander triumph, the movie has a checklist quality: an illegal abortion; India; the undercover Playboy Bunny story; Ms; the aviator glasses. Gloria comes across as virtually flawless, and that’s not compelling. We don’t learn who she truly is or what drives her to succeed so substantially.
Yet Taymor’s vital storytelling and the wealth of detail, from Ms. editorial sessions to the feminist movement’s problems diversity-wise, qualify the movie as a warm salute to Steinem and a vivid history ride revisiting a movement that profoundly changed attitudes and lives.
While the Glorias-on-a-bus scenes don’t fare brilliantly, fanciful sequences, which also include a witchy “Wizard of Oz”-inspired fantasy, are welcome and intriguing in a 139-minute movie that can feel over-plotted in a connect-the-dots way.
Most satisfying are Gloria’s interactions with the above-cited spiritedly portrayed activists. Toussaint’s formidable Flo Kennedy is the standout, while Midler’s hell-raising Abzug is the most fun.
Starring: Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Lulu Wilson, Timothy Hutton
Written by: Julie Taymor, Sarah Ruhl
Directed by: Julie Taymor
Running time: 2 hours, 19 minutes
Envisioned as a female “Huckleberry Finn,” the small but satisfying “Once Upon a River” follows the adventures of Native American teenager Margo Crane (Kenadi DelaCerna), who lives in a cabin with her father (Tatanka Means) in rural Michigan in the 1970s.
An Annie Oakley admirer who takes pride in her own shooting skills, Margo finds herself in survival mode when a traumatic incident involving the predatory patriarch (Coburn Goss) of a local family forces her to flee in a rowboat and search for the mother (Lindsay Pulsipher) who abandoned her.
What follows is a road tale on the river, during which Margo experiences encounters that help her discover who she is and take charge of that. Most meaningful are a romance with a young schoolteacher (Ajuawak Kapashesit) and a friendship with an ailing trailer dweller (John Ashton).
Written and directed by Haroula Rose, making her feature debut, and adapted from Bonnie Jo Campbell’s novel, the drama isn’t deep and doesn’t brim with originality.
But, assisted by Charlotte Hornsby’s outdoor cinematography, Margo’s river adventures are engrossing in this engaging coming-of-age story with an uncommon heroine and setting.
Newcomer DelaCerna delivers a solid, likeable lead performance, and Rose sets a tone just mythic enough to prevent practical concerns about teenage Margo’s personal situation from overshadowing the narrative.
Rose also deserves credit for her nonjudgmental presentation of the characters’ problematic choices.
“Once Upon a River” begins streaming Friday; visit https://www.filmmovement.com/once-upon-a-river.
Once Upon a River
Starring: Kenadi DelaCerna, John Ashton, Tatanka Means, Ajuawak Kapashesit
Written and directed by: Haroula Rose
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes