Italian-born director Andrea Pallaoro’s “Monica” follows in the footsteps of his previous offerings “Medeas” and “Hannah“ in its smooth, hypnotic style.
We first encounter our titular heroin (Trace Lysette), appropriately enough, in Santa Monica where returning to her car from a spa treatment, she has to endure a suggestive come-on from a stranger – “Hot Girl, Hot Car”. We realize that Monica, a trans woman, has had to endure this type of attention from the moment she decided to make the transition. We also sense from the pathetic and denigrating phone calls she makes to an unseen boyfriend and from her work as a masseuse, which clearly bores her, – there may or may not be sex involved – that life in LA is going nowhere fast. So, when she gets a surprise call from her sister-in-law Laura (Emily Browning in a lovely understated performance) to return home to the Midwest because her mom is dying, we feel that this could be Monica’s salvation. Not so fast!
It transpires that ten years previously, Monica’s mother Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson) did the unforgivable when she took her effeminate teenage boy and dropped him off at a bus bound for LA saying she could no longer live with him. Dying now, from a brain tumor, Eugenia seems to have no memory of this event, and whether she remembers “Monica” at all is never revealed. However, there clearly is SOMETHING between the two women, and Monica, pretending to be help from the local hospice, gradually becomes closer to her mother. After she is stood up on an online date and then has anonymous sex with a passing truck driver, Monica returns home and cradles her mother in bed, the camera all-the-while being focused on Clarkson’s expressive eyes. It’s a wonderful scene out of many wonderful scenes in this almost wordless movie.
Pallaora is blessed with two actresses who are able to convey oceans of emotion with their closeups and Lysette, a real-life trans actress, who is in almost every scene, is wonderful. There is a collateral, if somewhat obvious, storyline suggesting that Monica’s sensitive nephew may be on the same path as his aunt, only now with Monica’s support and the support of his family. Some things do get better with time.