“Monica is a quiet triumph that may unfortunately be easily overlooked, with a haunting performance at the centre of its redemption arc.”
How do you reconcile with your past when the past hasn’t caught up to you? In Andrea Pallaoro’s third film Monica, his protagonist struggles with this question, although the circumstances of the reconciliation are kept from the audience for the most part. Monica is a slow-burn character study that keeps its cards close to its chest and requires reading between the few spoken lines to unravel the mystery surrounding its titular character. A mystery that involves a world of hurt, both in the past and in the present, a hurt that only the love and compassion of family can mend. If they can catch up with you, that is.
Monica (Trace Lysette) is a stunning woman, which gets her plenty of unsolicited attention from men trying to, for lack of a more subtle term, get in her panties. There is solicited attention too, to be sure, as Monica makes her living as a sex worker through hook-ups and cam work. She is a woman of few words, and most of those are spoken into the answering machine of a man whose relationship to Monica is undefined. It doesn’t really matter, because her monologues on her cell phone clearly paint an unhealthy relationship. She makes another call, to a woman named Laura, and sets up a meeting that, going by the conversation, has been a long time coming. Laura (Emily Browning) turns out to be Monica’s sister-in-law, a mother of three, married to Monica’s brother Paul (Joshua Close). They meet at the house of their dying mother, Genie (Patricia Clarkson), where Monica has agreed to help out with palliative care. Monica has difficulty adjusting, but over time this fractured family has a chance to grow back into a whole. Will Monica get the acceptance and closure she longs for, both from her family and herself?
Shot in a 1:1 ratio that emphasizes the oppressive boxed-in psychological world of its protagonist, Monica is a delicate film that does not verbalize most of the trauma its characters have lived through or are trying to come to terms with. Minutes go by without a line of dialogue, but the grief and anger is written on Monica’s face. She left her family quite some time ago, for reasons that are unclear on the surface, with few dots strewn around to connect. Monica isn’t her original name, and her brother says he barely recognizes her. Genie doesn’t recognize her at all, but this could be chalked up to the dying woman’s mental incoherence. Perhaps the biggest clue about Monica’s past lies in the casting of the actress playing her, Trace Lysette, a trans woman mostly known for her work on the TV show Transparent. Seen in this light, suddenly the irony of the unwanted male attention becomes clear, as does her family’s difficulty recognizing her. Her past is never made explicit, but inference goes a long way. Pallaoro’s direction is subtle almost to a fault, but him holding back is part of why the film burns itself into your soul.
The film also owes a lot of its success to Lysette, who fills virtually every tight frame. Her performance is a simmering volcano that sporadically erupts in anger or quiet grief, and the actress balances the nuances of the role masterfully. If Transparent was her calling card, Monica is the film that should really turn the spotlight on her. The world-weary character that gradually lets down the fence to open herself up to her family culminates in the film’s masterful final shot, a tight zoom on Lysette’s face while her young nephew sings the Star Spangled Banner on stage. The irony of ending the film on the anthem of a nation in which trans rights have taken a nosedive is not lost, but it’s Lysette’s eyes that tell the real story of Monica finally having found her place in the world. Whereas Cate Blanchett earlier in the week dazzled audiences (and this reviewer) with grand gestures in Tár, Lysette’s internalized performance that lays bare the emotions of her character mostly through her eyes and intonation might just match the Australian thesp’s level, even if the two performances are wildly different.
Combined with Pallaoro’s extremely restrained direction this makes for a film that is not easy to penetrate, a film that requires patience and full attention, but Monica rewards the audience with a devastating portrayal of being different and finding yourself and your place among people who love you no matter what, in the face of feelings of abandonment and loneliness. Monica is a quiet triumph that may unfortunately be easily overlooked, with a haunting performance at the centre of its redemption arc.