On its surface John Cassavetes’ Gloria does not seem like your standard Cassavetes film. The filmmaker known for his more realistic, hand-held style does slide into a more mainstream mode of filmmaking here but does it with such Cassavetes-style that the film becomes inarguably his. Casting his wife Gena Rowlands in the lead role, the filmmaker takes a premise tailor-made for a warm, uplifting family picture and creates a darker portrait of childhood and family. Rowlands stars as Gloria, a tough New York City mob moll put in charge of a young Puerto Rican boy being hunted by gangsters. Much of the film involves Rowland and the boy, played by John Adames, running through the boroughs of New York City taking trains, buses, and cabs all across avoiding danger and trying to find their way out.
Overly precocious child plus tough talking woman would usually spell out hijinx and fun but Cassavetes shoots the film with an unerring realism and shows the grit and grime of late 1970s New York City for what it was rather than trying to glam things up. Rowlands sets the tone with her wonderful performance that refuses to abide or go for easy out but rather keeps up a shield of tough resilience that was probably vital for a single woman living in such a tough part of New York. Adames precocious portrayal as the hunted child is obnoxious at first but slowly grows on you and the audience can slowly realize why Gloria would risk so much for the kid. Adames won a Razzie for his performance here and it’s hard to argue with but I say there’s very little in the way of a practiced performance here making his line readings feel all the more real and tragic as they feel like they are coming from a real boy, not an actor playing boy.
In the end, I would say this is probably lesser Cassavetes but still a rather strong film. In lesser hands, this film could have been insufferable but the filmmaker elevates the material molding his style on to a more commercial project and bringing out headier themes and more realistic performances out of its actors. The look and feel of the film owes a debt to the filmmaker’s unerring style mixed with a script that, though ham-handed at times, is filled with pathos and real emotion. A strange, happy ending tag nearly sinks the film and a few bits that feel uncharacteristic of the best of Cassavetes but the film is a strong showcase for Rowlands and is quite entertaining at times.