Trace Lysette shines as an estranged trans daughter in the quiet, naturalistic ‘Monica’

Trace Lysette in Monica
Trace Lysette in Monica Photo: Courtesy of IFC Films

Many thoughts and ideas swirled in my brain as I prepared to watch Monica, director and co-writer Andrea Pallaoro’s intimate new film about a trans woman caring for her ailing, estranged mother.

I considered the importance of depictions of trans joy; the impact “relatable” stories about trans people could have on public perceptions and attitudes toward the community; that thing President Joe Biden said about Will & Grace changing attitudes toward gay people; the possibility of a network ever greenlighting a crowd-pleasing sitcom that centers trans characters; the difference between that kind of show and a series about trans people for trans people, like Pose; the mass appeal of Torrey Peters’s 2021 novel Detransition, Baby; the importance of depicting trans people’s authentic lived experience; the diversity of real trans people’s real lived experience.

Such is the mental and political baggage that under-represented groups and the people who care about them bring to art depicting those groups.

Monica arrives in U.S. theaters this week, at a time when trans people have become a lightning rod in American politics, with Republican lawmakers doing their damnedest to eliminate the community’s ability to simply exist in society. But while a single work of art can illuminate an issue, shedding light on a community and its struggles, it can never be expected to solve society’s ills.

So many queer films and shows get unfairly criticized — by queer people, more often than not — for not doing everything, for not being everything, or not being enough of the thing. But the truly generous, the appropriate way to approach them is on their own terms, as discreet works telling specific stories.

With Monica, Pallaoro and co-writer Orlando Tirado deliver a quiet, almost relentlessly somber portrait of one trans woman and her difficult relationship with her immediate family, with a riveting performance from Trace Lysette.

Lysette stars as Monica, a woman who returns to her childhood home after being estranged from her family for decades. Her mother Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson) is ill, suffering from a brain tumor that is causing her confusion and dementia-like symptoms. As a result, she does not recognize Monica, who is presented to her — by Monica’s brother Paul (Joshua Close) and well-meaning sister-in-law Laura (an oddly under-used Emily Browning) — as a caregiver brought in to aid Eugenia’s longtime housekeeper Leticia (Adriana Barraza).

Slowly, it’s revealed that Eugenia rejected Monica decades ago, presumably when she came out as trans, driving her to a bus station and telling her that she could no longer be her mother. With very few words, Lysette conveys the pain of this primal wound. Monica is pensive and standoffish. She’s wary of others, and what we see of her life early in the film hints at her loneliness. The brief glimpses we get of her relationships with men are messy. Profoundly needy, she reacts to rejection with rage, only to almost immediately regret her harsh words and beg for acceptance.

Within the limited range she’s allowed to play, Lysette excels. Monica is almost entirely dependent on her performance, and she proves herself more than capable of carrying a film. We feel for Monica, but Lysette’s performance resists turning the character into a saintly victim. She’s been hardened by life, and Lysette takes her time softening the character only as she begins to trust that those around her — namely Eugenia and Paul — aren’t going to reject her again.

Clarkson, of course, is wonderful as well. A proud woman, Eugenia’s illness has made her vulnerable, and Clarkson embodies her pain, as well as her deep undercurrent of unspoken regret, in quietly affecting ways. She’s initially resistant to Monica’s help, not because of any underlying distrust or suspicion — this is not that kind of movie — but because she resists the idea that she needs help. Gradually, though, she begins to first accept Monica’s aid out of necessity, and then to feel a deeper connection to this person who she may or may not understand is more to her than just a home healthcare worker.

Pallaoro and cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi create an atmosphere so intimate it can at times border on claustrophobia. Much of the film is shot from odd angles, as if we are sneaking an illicit peak at the characters from just around a corner. In many scenes, characters are just off-screen. That heightens the sense that this is a specific story, that we are privy to the private lives of real people who are not performing for an audience.

In other hands, this story could tip over into melodrama. Instead, what we’re shown feels authentic, the characters quietly dealing with their circumstances in ways that feel naturalistic.

Monica is a work of political art only insofar as we politicize trans people. Yes, there’s the very real issue of trans children being rejected and discarded by their families, and the film hints at the complicated sexual dynamics trans women have to navigate with straight men. But the word “trans” is never spoken in the film, and there’s no big moment of revelation, no major crisis or confrontation — this isn’t that kind of movie either.

Instead, Monica is about lived reality in the sense that we — all of us — deal with things and move on. No big speeches, no cathartic, cinematic scenes. Things go unsaid, and sometimes forgiveness is an act of pure will — something we have to do for ourselves, with no expectation of resolution, in order to heal.

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