THE STORY – A woman returns home to care for her ailing mother, whom she hasn’t seen in years.
THE CAST – Trace Lysette, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Browning, Joshua Close & Adriana Barraza
THE TEAM – Andrea Pallaoro (Director/Writer) & Orlando Tirado (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 106 Minutes
Representation is such a loaded word these days. Still, the constant conversation continues anyway, as it’s also something that can too quickly be taken for granted when you’ve grown up with it your whole life, and this is a fact that always bears repeating. I didn’t see myself onscreen – or know that a trans life full of love was even possible – until I was 20 years old when I saw “Euphoria” for the first time. Before then, I came of age watching movies and shows where trans women played by cis men ultimately led miserable lives that ended in untimely deaths, which isn’t the most positive message to send to a teenager still struggling with her gender identity (to put it lightly). And when you start to actually process these feelings of confusion and exclusion and turn to media to make sense of who you are and where you belong and subsequently discover that you either a) don’t exist or b) will never be able to live your truth safely, well that just fucking sucks. And the representation that can abate this maddening mental anguish isn’t the slop some studios try to serve up every now and then where a minority is shoved in the background of some scene in a blockbuster or – god willing! – given at least one line to Officially Identify Themselves™, but the art where we are given the space to share our complex, complicated stories in their entirety and let the mainstream experience us in all our multidimensionality, as this is the only way we not only accept ourselves but compel others to do the same. And with “Monica,” writer-director Andrea Pallaoro, co-writer Orlando Tirado, and star Trace Lysette have given us one of the greatest (and fullest) trans films ever seen in the history of cinema – and one of the few films to ever comprehensively captures the everyday exhaustion of a trans existence while not neglecting its euphoria either.
From start to finish, we follow the titular Monica (the luminous Lysette), a massage therapist currently going through a brutal break-up on top of perpetually struggling with her sense of self. But in an instant, this conflict has to be put on hold after she’s called by her sister-in-law Laura (“Sucker Punch’s” Emily Browning) and told that her mother Genie’s (“Sharp Objects‘” Patricia Clarkson) health is failing, and now might be the last time she has to say goodbye (while also basically being asked to take some of the caregiving duties off their hands, as Genie’s other child). Monica hadn’t seen Genie since her mother disowned her when she came out as trans as a teenager, and naturally, making the choice to return to what was once a colossally toxic environment – no matter the sickened state Genie is in now – isn’t an easy one. But whether out of the guilt of “familial obligation” or a genuine desire to attempt to reconnect with her mother, Monica does ultimately make the trek back home, though, upon arrival, she still refrains from revealing her true identity to Genie, simply announcing herself as someone who will assist her current caregiver Leticia (“Babel’s” Adriana Barraza). And throughout the film, as Genie grows closer and closer to Monica, this secret hangs over every scene as we wait to see if Monica will finally divulge the truth – or if Genie will finally recognize her child.
With a story like this – fraught familial relations, a harrowing homecoming, and so on and so forth – it’d be all too easy for Pallaoro to descend into melodrama. Still, the beauty of “Monica” is how ravishingly restrained the entire affair is. There are no false beats or histrionic blowouts to be found here; Pallaoro allows everything to unfold organically, trusting the engrossing themes of love, loss, ruination, and rebirth to engage us on their own without any additional anarchy. Pallaoro’s emphasis on close-ups that constrain us in Monica’s perspective alongside her (thanks to his use of the tight Academy ratio) also keep us wholly involved and invested in her story from the first frame to the last, and Katelin Arizmendi’s lush, lyrical cinematography aids in the creation of this emotionally consuming aura. While understated, the artfulness in “Monica’s” stylistic construction prevents it from veering too far from staginess all the way into solemn stoicism, as Pallaoro is always incessantly working to assure that the very foundation of the film is rooted in the reservoir of its title character’s feelings, which express themselves unpredictably and uniquely in ways we’d never expect, remaining true to one’s actual reactions in a situation such as this. And then, of course, there’s Lysette herself – the one who really makes the material sing.
I write for a living, and yet I’ll never be able to put into words how much it not only means to see a trans woman playing a trans woman but also playing a trans woman in this story – one so many of us know so well. So rarely, if ever, have I seen a film that legitimately honors and explores all the emotions of the trans experience (both the beauty of finally living in a body we have made fit us and the woes found in the rest of the world) and more specifically, the mental gymnastics we must do when it comes to maintaining strained connections with our loved ones. The damage that Genie has caused Monica is apparent in every scene, with Monica’s every hushed whisper or hesitant approach (personified perfectly by Lysette), but at this same time, there’s a palpable yearning to be perceived as well – a desire to be reunited with this individual who once meant so much, no matter how much hurt they’ve caused, expedited by the reality of our mortality. This war that wages inside Monica – “Do I keep my guard up to protect myself from further pain or do I allow myself to be vulnerable once more in the hope of reconciliation?” – is exhibited effortlessly by the limberly natural Lysette and Clarkson, even in Genie’s most mentally muddled moments, is a stunningly sensitive scene partner who matches her every move, working in tandem with Lysette to usher us all closer to catharsis. And how beautiful is it to see a trans story that resolves not in tragedy or tumult but with a deeply felt denouement that sees Monica evolve beyond the perils of her past and become a happier and healthier person who finds hope in human relationships once more? “Monica” isn’t just a dynamically delivered family drama but an utterly essential addition to the canon of trans film, putting universal (but previously unseen) trials and tribulations on the big screen for the first time and doing so in an astonishingly affecting – and authentic – manner.