If there’s one device that writer-director Andrea Pallaoro yields within Monica, it is the power to tell an emotionally rich story with restraint, a confined aspect ratio, and a healthy dose of silence. What you find in meeting our main character (played by Trace Lysette), a trans woman residing in Los Angeles, is not every aspect of her life is told. If anything, it feels like you are peering over the shoulder of a life fully in motion. When we first meet Monica, it’s within the confines of a tanning booth.
Afterward, she walks to her car and leaves a voice mail message for a man named Jimmy – an ex-lover who suddenly wants nothing to do with her. As she gives a massage to an unseen man, there’s a sense of longing and sadness within Monica – the harsh words of her mother Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson) denouncing her still ring within her soul over a decade later.
That all looks to change when Monica gets a call from her sister-in-law Laura (Emily Browning) informing her that Eugenia is extremely ill. Reluctantly, Monica agrees to return to the Midwestern home she left to help care for her ailing mother. It’s an intriguing choice that Pallaoro and co-writer Orlando Tirado make in setting this story in motion within a remote suburb. Much of the early part of the film either chooses to obscure Monica in darkness, show her reflection in windows, or obscure her face in darkness. Even though it is a return home, Monica feels like a stranger in the house she grew up in.
Within Andrea Pallaoro’s narrative, there exists the classic theme of an estranged parent and child trying to make amends – however, there’s a different twist on that aspect. Eugenia has a brain tumor hurting her memory ability and has not seen Monica since her transition. Monica does not elect to tell Eugenia about who she used to be – she’s built the life she wanted out of the rejection from the person she’s now tasked to care for. Monica elects to take on the persona of a hospice worker, and Eugenia is steadfast in not needing any help while keeping Monica at arm's length.
Should Monica tell her? It’s something the film looks into and doesn’t take a definitive stance on because this story has a lot of creative subtexts. From what we see in the film, even with how rigid Eugenia is with her diagnosis, she begins to soften her stance with Monica. They later connect in ways that may not have been possible before their fight – both bittersweet and fulfilling simultaneously. Lysette takes hold of this role as a person who is resolute and comfortable in their identity, but also longing for some shared affection in a world that often alienates those in the trans community.
When Monica talks to her brother Paul (Joshua Close), they reminisce about the days when they were younger and also watch videos of their mother recounting memories of whom she used to be. There’s enough given in the subtlety of Lysette’s performance where you want to know what she feels even as she does everyday tasks. The beauty is within the unsaid things between Monica and her family – even if withholding previous history can be frustrating.
The film’s most powerful moments happen when Monica and Eugenia lie together and fall asleep or when Monica gives Eugenia a massage and embraces her with a hug. It feels just like a mother and daughter would do – even if it’s not explicitly said that Eugenia recognizes Monica. Whereas other stories might elect to turn up the level of the strife and arguments, Monica opts for thoughtful contemplation. In some ways, Monica is happy – the audience gets to witness her dancing and smiling. Then, there are moments where we see her crying in a bathroom in a message to her ex-boyfriend because this situation is a lot to take, and there’s no outlet.
There’s no need for the shock to be at the forefront – especially given so many instances centering around trans stories that based themselves on the cruelty of the world in which they exist. Beauty also exists, and it’s what Monica makes room for.