Review: ‘Monica’ (2023), starring Trace Lysette, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Browning, Joshua Close and Adriana Barraza

August 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Trace Lysette in “Monica” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Monica” (2023)

Directed by Andrea Pallaoro

Culture Representation: Taking place in California and Cincinnati, Ohio, the dramatic film “Monica” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A transgender woman takes a road trip for a reunion with her family, including her estranged mother, who has a hard time accepting her daughter’s transgender identity.

Culture Audience: “Monica” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in a relatively low-key drama about family issues that are often experienced by transgender people.

“Monica” cast members. Pictured in back row, from left to right: Joshua Close, Brennan or Leland Pittman, Emily Browning and Trace Lysette. Pictured in front row, from left to right: Ruby James Fraser, Graham Caldwell and Patricia Clarkson. (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The “slice of life” film “Monica” offers a glimpse into what it’s like for a transgender woman to reveal her transgender self for the first time to members of her family. Trace Lysette gives a magnetic performance in a film that is sometimes limited by mundane scenes. A lot of credit should be given to this drama for not going down a stereotypical path of setting up a deadly tragedy for the transgender protagonist.

Directed by Andrea Pallaoro (who co-wrote the “Monica” screenplay with Orlando Tirado), “Monica” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival. The film often moves along at a sluggish pace, but for viewers who have the patience for a deliberately introspective film that has several moments of emotional authenticity, then “Monica” is worth watching. A less talented cast would have lowered the quality of this movie.

Many scripted dramas about transgender people often make them tragic figures, but “Monica” does not pander to those clichés. It also doesn’t make a transgender person’s life look easy either. In “Monica,” Lysette (who is a transgender woman in real life) portrays the title character, who is seen taking a road trip from California to her family hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. (The movie was filmed on location in Cincinnati.)

Monica’s purpose for the road trip is to see her immediate family and reveal her transgender self for the first time to them. Monica has not seen these family in members in “a long time,” which isn’t specifically defined in the number of years, but viewers can assume it’s been several years. Very little is told about Monica’s past until near the end of film, although it’s fairly obvious that she’s apprehensive about taking this trip.

Before and during the trip, Monica is seen leaving voice mail messages to a man named Jimmy. However, Jimmy doesn’t seem to be interested in being in contact with her. In the movie’s opening scene, Monica is seen telling Jimmy in a voice mail: “Jimmy, I know you said you wanted some space, but I don’t mean to pressure you … I miss you a lot and just wanted to talk to you about a few things. Give me a call. I love you very much.”

Monica tells Jimmy in the messages that she’s taking a road trip and should arrive at her destination in “a couple of days.” Monica continues to leave messages for Jimmy and occasionally says she knows that he told her not to call, but that she needs to talk to someone. In other words, this movie makes it obvious that Monica is a very lonely person. Even though Monica is seen giving a massage to a naked man before she takes her trip, it’s never explicitly revealed if she’s a masseuse or a sex worker.

Not much happens while Monica is going to back to Cincinnati, so the first third of the movie tends to drag with scenes of her travels. At a gas station, Monica gets leered at by a man, who flirts with her. She politely rejects his advances. There are also some dull scenes of Monica by herself in motel rooms.

Things don’t get interesting in the movie until the family reunion. Monica’s widowed mother Eugenia (played by Patricia Clarkson) seems to have early on-set dementia. Eugenia is often bedridden and refuses to live in a hospice. Instead, Eugenia has a live-in caretaker named Leticia (played by Adriana Barraza), who is a loyal and responsible employee.

Monica’s two siblings live near Eugenia and often visit her. Monica’s brother Paul (played by Joshua Close) is a bachelor with no children. Monica’s sister Laura (played by Emily Browning) is a married mother of three children: 7-year-old son Brody (played by Graham Caldwell); daughter Britney (played by Ruby James Fraser), who’s about 5 years old; and an infant son named Benny (played by twins Brennan Pittman and Leland Pittman). Laura’s husband is not seen in the movie, because Laura says that she and her husband have been going through “a rough patch” in their marriage.

Laura and Paul do the best that they can to accept Monica’s transgender identity and don’t cause any problems for her about it. Eugenia is the one in the family who has the most resistance and discomfort about accepting Monica for who she is. The mother/daughter relationship is the emotional core of the movie, which shows how Monica and Eugenia try to navigate Eugenia’s struggle with Monica’s identity. Clarkson gives a very layered performance, as someone who has an internal struggle with her memory and reality.

“Monica” realistically doesn’t try to wrap everything in an “only in a movie” package. There are moments—thanks to the admirable acting from the cast members—where things are left unsaid, but the characters say a lot with their body language and facial expressions. Monica’s family members don’t express emotions easily, but underneath any pain or confusion, there is still love. “Monica” probably won’t be considered a classic movie about transgender identity, but it has a credible approach to portraying sensitive issues that don’t always have easy answers or expected results.

IFC Films released “Monica” in select U.S. cinemas on May 12, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on May 30, 2023.

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