Running Time: 113 mins
UK Distributor: 606 Distribution
UK Release Date: 15 December 2023
WHO’S IN MONICA?
Trace Lysette, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Browning, Joshua Close, Adriana Barraza
WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?
Andrea Pallaoro (director, writer, producer), Orlando Tirado (writer), Christina Dow, Eleonora Granata-Jenkinson and Gina Resnick (producers), Katelin Arizmendi (cinematographer), Paola Freddi (editor)
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
A transgender woman (Lysette) returns home to care for her dying mother (Clarkson)…
WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON MONICA?
The core achievement of writer-director Andrea Pallaoro’s third feature Monica is its casting of Trace Lysette in the title role. Beyond the fact that Lysette – previously known for supporting roles in TV’s Transparent and Hustlers – is, like her character, a transgender woman (thus avoiding the awkward conversation surrounding such characters being played by cisgender actors), Lysette is simply captivating in the part, giving a performance that should, in a just world, set a benchmark for trans actors to be considered as equally as anyone else.
Lysette’s performance is so strong that she ends up carrying the rest of the extremely understated film on her shoulders, which are sturdy enough to hold this slow-burn and quietly subtle family drama.
The film begins simply enough: Monia (Lysette) lives a steady life as a masseuse and part-time camgirl, when she unexpectedly receives a call from Laura (Emily Browning), the sister-in-law she’s never met, who informs her that her estranged mother Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson) is dying from a brain tumour. Monica reluctantly travels home for the first time in years, only to find that Eugenia does not recognise her child, believing her to instead be a new care assistant alongside current helper Leticia (Adriana Barraza). It is left to the rest of Monica’s family, including her brother Paul (Joshua Close), to deal with the unexpected arrival, while Monica herself grapples with the emotional circumstances that led to her estrangement from her own mother and siblings.
Pallaoro’s film is unnervingly quiet, with absolutely no musical score on the soundtrack, not even during the end credits, while Katelin Arizmendi’s boxed-in Academy ratio cinematography ensures a sharp focus on a number of dreamy, contemplative and darkly-lit shots where little appears to be happening. This might sound unbelievably dull, especially since the film moves along at an incredibly slow pace before then stopping once it’s reached a particular point in the narrative, but Monica is all about what’s not immediately obvious to the viewer.
Pallaoro conveys a large chunk of complex character work through some admirably subtle techniques, such as a series of extended shots that go on for a considerable amount of time whilst the performers say or even do very little in the background or foreground, with all the drama coming from their reserved reactions to the most minute of details, like a neglected swimming pool that’s now covered in grass and roots.
The filmmaker uses these moments to present a character piece that relies not on conventional structure – there is not a devastating shouting match to be heard, nor is there some late reveal in the third act that causes drama to come pouring out like a geyser – but instead on pure mood and performance. Pallaoro captures the uncertain mood as we see Trace Lysette’s Monica go through her own personal battles with both her family and an unseen lover she regularly leaves voicemails for, as well as her understated attempts to leave her mark on her estranged family, including encouraging her young nephew who displays sensitive mannerisms to embrace his emotions during an upcoming school performance.
Lysette is firmly at the centre of it all, with the actor delivering a beautifully composed portrayal of a woman who has more than a few skeletons in her family closet, which she handles with such care and precision that gives her an enormous amount of screen presence and credibility.
While the rest of the film is perhaps too slow for its own good, with at least ten minutes that could easily have been trimmed down at the very least, Monica is a neatly wound mood piece that succeeds on the back of its lead star, who gives a compelling lead turn that should put her at the forefront of on-screen trans representation.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Monica is a quiet and impressively subtle family drama that relies on mood and performance over a conventional structure, which despite its slow pace is carried by some focused cinematography and especially a phenomenal lead turn by Trace Lysette.