Opens Friday

Some movies live or die by the charisma of the leading performer. Meryl Streep is that person in almost everything she’s in these days, but more interesting are the films that explore the inner lives of regular women, with relative unknowns in the lead roles.

Happy-Go-Lucky, for instance, made a name for Sally Hawkins in 2008, which led to a string of higher profile roles that culminated in an Oscar nomination for Blue Jasmine and a part in this summer’s Godzilla.

Paulina García may be less likely to experience a Hollywood crossover, but this middle-aged Chilean actress brings a spectacular performance to Gloria, the extremely appealing new drama from Sebastián Lelio. Present in every scene, García is required to be by turns mousy and sexy, weary and rejuvenated. At times, she’s photographed harshly, and at others, she gorgeously cuts a rug, blinking coquettishly from behind 1980s-style nerd-chic glasses. And, not incidentally, García is often nude, in scenes sexual and otherwise.

Gloria lives a middle-class existence alone in a Santiago apartment. She’s long divorced, with a couple of grown kids and an ex-husband who married a younger woman. She adores pop music and frequents a singles disco for older people. Lelio’s film, then, is sort of a grown-up version of any movie or TV show about young singletons in the city. In Gloria’s case, the same personal drama and bad behavior that upend younger people’s relationships happen to her, too.

After some hesitation, Gloria begins dating Rodolfo, a man in his late 60s or 70s who owns a thrill park, which turns out to be totally at odds with his personality. Their sex scenes together are frank and erotic. Rodolfo is self-conscious about his body, and he also struggles to commit to her emotionally. After decades of being an unhappy husband and father, he nonetheless has difficulty letting go of his familial obligations (this doesn’t reflect entirely badly on him, of course).

Fortunately, this movie is Gloria’s story, not his, and we see how a middle-aged woman can still suffer because of the negligence and unreliability of an allegedly grown man. It’s a relatable film about how in many ways, nothing really changes for older people seeking romance and sex. Particularly piquant is a sequence in which Gloria goes on a drunken all-night spree with a strange man. It’s frightening and exhilarating at the same time to see older people exhibiting such intoxicated neediness. It’s a familiar-enough youthful experience for many of us, but this film suggests that it’s a mistake to assume we’ve left such recklessness behind.

Anchored by García’s sensational performance, Gloria is a portrait not of an indomitable superwoman, but of an ordinary person who keeps on searching for romance and fulfillment, smoking pot and going to yoga classes and dance clubs, risking rejection and heartbreak at a time when it would be so easy to just retire to the couch and the remote control.

This article appeared in print with the headline “She’s lost control.”