Trace Lysette Stuns In Intimate Portrait Of A Homecoming

May 9, 2023

Monica begins with an explosion of sound and the bright shine of artificial UV rays. Trace Lysette lays in a tanning bed, her eyes covered by beady protective glasses, while New Order’s “Bizarre Love” plays. This extreme close-up, both jarring and immediately intimate, is a primer for the rest of the film, a story of alienation and acceptance centered on Lysette’s stunning turn as the title character. The narrative of Monica is scant, but this makes way for a poignant examination of trans identity and loneliness through the lens of one family.

Though not many hints are given, it is clear that Monica is estranged not only from her family but from another significant relationship in her life. She leaves voicemails for a man named Jimmy who has told her not to call. Monica, of course, calls anyway, shouting into the void before she decides to head home to the unnamed small town where she grew up. The relationships reveal themselves slowly as audiences meet Emily Browning’s Laura (Monica’s sister-in-law), Adriana Barraza’s Leticia (the family’s caretaker), and, finally, Monica’s mother Eugenia and her brother Paul, played by Patricia Clarkson and Joshua Close, respectively.

Upon seeing her, Paul tells his sister that he wouldn’t even recognize her if he didn’t know who she was and although there is no animosity in the statement, it underscores the isolation that seemingly permeates Monica’s life. Director and co-writer Andrea Pallaoro conveys this isolation through tight close-ups of Monica’s face in which some parts may or may not be obscured. Whether it be by shadow, the cover of night, a doorframe, or something else, the camera takes its time in revealing Monica to the audience in the same way it takes Monica time to reclaim space in her childhood home.

Patricia Clarkson in Monica

Her mother doesn’t recognize her — whether it’s because Monica is trans or because of the brain tumor that is causing Eugenia to suffer is unclear. What Eugenia doesn’t remember, though, Monica does, including being disowned by her caregiver and left to make her own way through the world before she even turned 18. Save for a few short scenes, though, none of this is dwelled on or fleshed out in any way that provides more clarity than is absolutely necessary. In a lesser film, this would be a flaw, but in Monica, the withholding works as a way for the audience to feel what the film’s title character is feeling.

Like Monica, we’re unsure of where we stand at times, but with Pallaoro’s confident direction and Lysette’s revelatory performance, it’s to the film’s advantage that we are so inside Monica’s head. Lysette has turned in standout performances in Transparent and Venus as a Boy, but in Monica, the actress gives an achingly intimate yet unsentimental performance. It’s raw and restrained and proof that Lysette should be given more roles like this. Quiet moments like Monica leaving voicemails to Jimmy are punctuated by the anger that surfaces when her car breaks down or the fear she feels as she flees her mother’s home in a moment of doubt that feels all too real.

The only thing holding Monica back is Pallaoro’s concealing of information. While intentional and, at times beneficial, it does lend itself to frustration as often as it does illumination. This withholding serves to emphasize the formal experiments being done here, but I can’t help but wish for a little bit more grounding than Monica offers. Thankfully, where the plot lacks, Lysette and company make up for it. Clarkson, in particular, is excellent as Eugenia, and the brief scenes Close and Lysette share as estranged siblings are also deeply affecting.

The idea of home and homecoming has many meanings in the context of queerness. Queer and trans folks have much more complex definitions of the subject as the houses they were raised in often don’t become homes that they are eager to return to. Sometimes these homes become symbols of the worst parts of their lives. Monica grapples with this topic in its searing portrait of a woman who must return home, both for the mother who abandoned her and for the girl inside of her who is longing to feel grounded by the people who raised her. It doesn’t always work, but Monica is able to soar above some narrative issues to become a moving story with a knockout performance from Lysette.

Monica premieres in theaters on May 12. The film is 106 minutes long and rated R for sexual content, nudity, and language.

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