For many trans people, it sounds like the premise of a horror film: after being estranged from one’s family due to coming out, there’s a forced attempt at reconciliation because of a dying parent who needs care and only so many hands to tend to them.
I’m not certain I’d always be in a place to negotiate that scenario as an audience member, but the genius of Monica (★★★★★) is in how it acknowledges reality through a slow drip of true-to-life brushstrokes without tipping over into an unnecessary recreation of family trauma that would be all-too-cruel.
The first half hour of Andrea Pallaoro’s film is an accumulation of curiosities and precise yet multilayered observations that unravel the backstory of the title character, played brilliantly by Trace Lysette.
Take one of the opening scenes. There’s an awkward and unsettling encounter with a strange man in a parking lot, who has spotted Monica in her cool car and wanders over to work his angles. Despite repeated and polite requests to leave her be, he hangs around, hovering in a manner that quickly goes from annoying to potentially threatening.
The brief scene alone feels like looking at one of those trick drawings that appears radically different depending on the perspective of the viewer. For most men, I imagine it would come across as an annoying guy utterly failing in his attempt to hit on an attractive woman.
For most women, it would (correctly) be perceived as a potentially dangerous situation from which this woman needs to extract herself as soon as possible but without offending the man and escalating the threat. And yet, for most trans women, there is a complicated reminder of how much more dangerous it could turn out if he happens to find out she’s trans. This snapshot is haunting, a vignette of horror hiding in plain sight.
Take another scene: under less-than-desirable circumstances, Monica has just met her sister-in-law, Laura (Emily Browning), a kind mother-of-three who delicately acknowledges her journey during an awkward meet-and-greet, politely offering that she hasn’t yet told Monica’s dying mother, Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson), she’ll be there because she didn’t feel it’s her place.
The moment is quite tender, and apart from a few earlier, more subtle clues — although this exchange itself is fairly subtle — it’s the first lightbulb moment for many audience members that Monica is transgender. The exchange itself comes after Monica briefly appears in the doorway of her mother’s room while the nurse and sister-in-law explain that Monica is there to help with basic care.
Monica’s mother — once again, unaware that Monica is her transgender daughter — bristles at the thought of anyone else being brought in to help, saying she “doesn’t need her,” a painful rejection that also unknowingly and correctly refers to Monica as a woman.
The film keeps building like this, subtle scenes brilliantly written by Pallaoro and Orlando Tirado, taking whispers of the past and weaving them into an uncomfortable and oddly affirming tapestry of a family that has clearly been shattered in the past and now must work together to put the pieces back into place as their matriarch prepares for her final journey.
Like that opening scene with the car and the man, the film magnificently succeeds in being a few different movies wrapped in one, depending on the perspective of the viewer. I imagine most cisgender people will be captivated by what they see as a modern family drama of loss and attempted reconciliation.
Although trans people are not a monolith, I would venture to say that, for most of us, it comes across in a far different manner. Speaking only for myself with this particular characterization, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching the start of a horror movie that Ari Aster probably wishes he could make. One that eventually turns into a unified viewing of reconciliation that achieves understanding bereft of adequate time. Lysette delivers a remarkable performance, and if there were justice in the world, we’d get to see her more often in leading roles on the big screen.
For most trans people, Monica unfortunately reflects a family situation that is as good as it gets: long-awaited authenticity only won through estrangement from the people who are supposed to love you most and accept you unconditionally — and eventual acceptance when fate forces everyone’s hand.
Monica is playing at Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Visit www.landmarktheatres.com.
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!