Film Review: Uncle Gloria: One Helluva Ride

A formidable woman is ready for her close-up, but the resulting documentary portrait is rough around the edges.
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For a woman who built an identity based on a pressing need to hide, trans octogenarian Gloria Stein is boldly forthcoming in baring her life and truth on-camera, in documentarian Robyn Symon’s Uncle Gloria: One Helluva Ride.

To become acquainted with the self-described activist and public speaker is a pleasure, because she comes off in the film as charming, intelligent and exceptionally honest. As with many compelling documentary subjects, she appears driven at least partly by a genuine need to reach others who might benefit from knowing her one-of-a-kind story.

But as a vehicle for her message, or the filmmaker’s, Uncle Gloria proceeds only in fits and starts, and stalls out a couple of times taking poorly plotted detours to introduce or flesh out Gloria’s circle of friends and family. Through a digressive stream of interviews, narrated photo and home-video footage, staged scenes, and revealing trips with Gloria to family gatherings, to a dominatrix session and even the operating room, the film teases out a few feature-length storylines that ultimately feel either forced or unresolved.

The movie, which Simon also edited, captures Gloria as a brassy, on-the-go blonde with a scandalous past and hard-won wisdom to share. However, it gets farther rehashing her backstory than by generating forward momentum in any present-day direction.

We meet Ms. Stein browsing muscle cars on an auto lot in south Florida, where she demonstrates an expert knowledge of what goes on under the hood of a classic Chevy. The car salesman is mildly surprised at how well the lady knows her way around an automobile. Then he’s totally astonished when she confesses that, not only do they have in common the fact that she also used to sell cars and auto parts, but she and he used to share other parts as well.

Gradually, Gloria reveals the life she led for decades, pre-transition, as Bernard, nicknamed Butch. Described as shrewd, tough and homophobic, Butch was an ultra-macho auto-salvage entrepreneur who was twice married, producing two sons with his first wife, and divorced bitterly from the second. It was on his second wife’s behalf that Butch, delinquent in alimony payments, was served with a writ of bodily attachment to appear physically in court—and that appearance resulted in a brief incarceration. Later released, then summoned to appear in court again, he chose in desperation to disappear rather than risk returning to jail.

Butch’s decision to go into hiding prompted him to fully embrace the cross-dressing alter ego he had previously established in secret. “Gloria Stein” came into being as Butch’s temporary cover identity—until Gloria realized she’d truly discovered herself. Thirty years later, she’s living with a loving partner, a trans man named Dan, sharing her personal journey towards self-actualization at seminars and speaking engagements, and trying to reconcile her frayed relationships with family members who felt betrayed or abandoned by Butch.

Shot and framed thoughtfully, if not especially well-lit, Uncle Gloria manages an enviable balance between reflecting Gloria’s sunny, sanguine cool, and conveying the darker impact of her less than law-abiding life choices. Meanwhile, she and Dan allow a glimpse into their romance and home life that should challenge and entertain, while enlightening attentive audiences about the specific joys and struggles of a trans couple.

Gloria clearly has plenty to get off her chest, and she expresses herself persuasively, always emphatically living up to her credo that not everybody has to follow a pattern. But somehow, Simon’s film feels too flimsy a platform to support the weight of all that Gloria and her strange, triumphant life have to show us.

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