Review: Monica

Written and directed by Andrea Pallaoro, co-written by Orlando Tirado, when an estranged transgender woman journeys home to visit her dying mother, she reconnects to her past and ultimately to herself. Starring: Trace Lysette, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Browning, Adriana Barraza, Joshua Close and Graham Caldwell.

We’re slowly entering an age where Trans stories are being explored in film and television, and not simply stereotypical coming out stories but natural, organic inclusion. Monica is a good example of that as it fits the best of both worlds, it is dealing with the key issue of acceptance but at the same time, it’s about Monica’s (Trace Lysette) relationship with her family and dealing with her mother’s illness. It starts out being about her stepping back into her old life as her authentic self but evolves into much more than that. What follows is a thoughtful, emotional and moving portrayal of regret, struggle, self-confidence, mental health and illness.

Andrea Pallaoro moves this story with a pensive and patient pacing, there’s a smoothness to it in that it moves so naturally. The slow movement of it helps to take the time to fully embrace the themes and emotions. Part of that is how much depth the direction and cinematography (by Katelin Arizmendi) have. The palette and texture feel almost feel as though they’ve been transported from a 1980s Italian drama, it’s rich and enthralling. One of the greatest things about it is how keenly it adapts to each of the different tones to this story. It’s not all reflection and mortality, there’s also a disconnect with Monica, her still working at establishing her own life and how being thrown back into her old one complicates that. There’s a huge vein of mental health that explores a lot of different territories. Although part of that is bringing through a sexuality and it doesn’t work very well, it tends to clash with the rest of the tone. While those choices do feel relevant to Monica’s experience and persona, they can feel out of place.

All of those layers and complexities are portrayed to perfection by Trace Lysette. The presence that she brings to contain the different sides to Monica, without even really needing to say a word is compelling and affecting. There’s a tenderness and vulnerability to her performance but at the same time, she presents Monica as confident and forthright. Patricia Clarkson then takes vulnerability to another level with Monica’s mother Eugenia, exploring how her illness has weakened her. To the point that she’s both childlike and waning, as well as stubborn and immovable. Watching their slow but steady journey to rediscovering a connection, while both having such different perspectives of one another, is genuinely moving. Many might be looking for something more dramatic and revelatory but the gradual journey is truly worth it.

Monica is a thoughtful and moving portrayal of family and terminal illness. Andrea Pallaoro and Orlando Tirado have a fantastic handle on respecting and doing justice to their Trans character, while creating a larger story. It’s full of genuine and striking emotion which is brought to life beautifully by Trace Lysette and Patricia Clarkson, as well as having a superb supporting cast. It takes its time to slowly get under your skin to create something that’s somehow both heart-breaking and hopeful. Delving into the idea of repairing relationships which are sadly to be short lived, and how that can give more insight into who you are as a person.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯ | 8/10

Screening as part of ‘From Venice To London’ at Curzon Soho

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