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Monica

“Monica” offers viewers a narrative that, upon hearing it described, will lead most viewers to assume that it is a decidedly melodramatic piece of work. However, Andrea Pallaoro, who directed and co-wrote the film, avoids that by approaching the story more subtly and with more restraint than one might expect, but still packing a mighty emotional punch. The result is a quiet, heartfelt, and beautifully nuanced drama that feels unique and universal, featuring what will surely go down as one of the best performances of 2023.

The title character, played by Trace Lysette, is a trans woman who appears to be working as a sex worker while at the same time having certain relationship issues captures through her inability to get certain people on the phone. One day, she receives a call from Laura (Emily Browning), the sister-in-law she has never met, informing her that her mother, Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson), is seriously ill. It has been a long time since Monica has seen her mother—not since she kicked Monica out of the house as a teenager years ago because of her unwillingness to accept her sexuality. But something compels her to make the journey home.

The twist is that when Monica arrives and faces the woman who rejected her years ago, Eugenia has no idea who she is. Because she hasn’t seen Monica since her transition and a brain tumor is wreaking havoc with her cognitive functions, Eugenia assumes that Monica is just another caregiver she doesn't want, hired to give her pills that she doesn’t want to take. Instead of revealing who she is, Monica keeps her identity a secret and lets her continue with that assumption. While getting reacquainted with brother Paul (Joshua Close) and meeting his young kids for the first time, Monica continues to care for Eugenia. Even as the latter slips further into the abyss of her illness, an emotional bond that might not have had the chance to exist otherwise begins to form between the two women, while only one of whom knows all the details of what is going on.

See what I mean about the potentially melodramatic aspects of this premise? Hell, Pedro Almodóvar could have taken the concept in several potentially provocative areas. However, Pallaoro and co-writer Orlando Tirado have something different up their sleeves. Instead of the expected moments of emotional bombast, they work in a quieter and less obviously sentimental mode that's more concerned with following Monica in her attempts at forging some personal connection amidst her general sense of alienation towards the world. This feeling is visually symbolized by the tight Academy framing used throughout by Pallaoro and cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi

Instead of the big dramatic confrontations that one might expect in a film like this, the screenplay is more interested in exploring the quiet human truths that arise out of the situation in ways that end up having a much more significant impact. Here is a film where the big emotional climax comes in the form of one person giving another a back rub, and even though very little dialogue is spoken during this scene, the sight of one person’s hand tenderly kneading and soothing the other’s flesh shares everything that needs to be said at that moment. There is maybe one section in “Monica” that stumbles, in which she goes out one night to meet a man from the internet, and it doesn’t go off quite as planned. It isn’t necessarily bad, per se, but it's the one portion of the film that's somewhat familiar.

Clarkson, as always, is quite strong as Eugenia. She does an excellent job depicting her character going through the cruelties that often come toward the end of life, engendering enormous sympathy while simultaneously suggesting the unflinching mindset that caused that break with her child years earlier. And Adriana Barraza is very good as Eugenia’s dedicated care worker who also befriends Monica. 

But the film’s best performance—which transforms "Monica" from a well-made drama into an absolute must-see—comes from Lysette. You may have seen her before in several episodes of “Transparent” and also in “Hustlers.” Lysette is front and center here in a part that makes her the focus of virtually every scene and covers nearly the entire emotional gamut. It's not an easy character to play, requiring someone who can offer a convincing sense of personal isolation throughout, even when ostensibly interacting with others. Lysette pulls it off beautifully—there isn't a false moment in her performance, and even when the film observes her going through ostensibly mundane tasks, she remains a commanding and compelling presence. Simply put, this great work made me instantly eager to see what she does next.

While I presume that Pallaoro's film will no doubt resonate on a deeper level with viewers who personally recognize Monica's experience, anyone who loves a robust, well-told character study will appreciate this movie. Formally intriguing and genuinely gripping, "Monica" avoids the usual cliches and contains many lovely performances and graceful moments. Even the most jaded moviegoers may be surprised by how much "Monica" moves them. 

Now playing in theaters. 

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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Film Credits

Monica movie poster

Monica (2023)

Rated R for sexual content, nudity and language.

114 minutes

Cast

Trace Lysette as Monica

Patricia Clarkson as Eugenia

Emily Browning as Laura

Joshua Close as Paul

Adriana Barraza as Leticia

Bobby Easley as Trucker

Graham Caldwell as Brody

Ali Amine as The Massage Man

Jean Zarzour as Doctor

Ruby James Fraser as Britney

Director

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

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