Review by Sean Boelman
Andrea Pallaoro’s Monica debuted at last year’s Venice Film Festival, where it gained a great deal of acclaim. The film’s uniquely subtle approach to its themes sets it apart in the canon of LGBTQIA+ cinema, and a beautiful lead performance by its star, Trace Lysette, will ensure it gets the attention it deserves.
The movie follows a woman who, after having left her family decades before, returns home for the first time to care for her dying mother, having to confront a slew of feelings in the process. Although it would have been easy for this to become melodramatic, Pallaoro has created something that feels wonderfully intimate and grounded.
It’s nice to see a film about LGBTQIA+ issues that is as internalistic as this. Although there are certainly undercurrents of external conflict — like the protagonist briefly discussing how her family did not accept her transition, or one character saying he “wouldn’t have recognized” her — the movie is much more about the emotions Monica experiences, and less about the pressure she faces (or faced) with her transition, as many trans films are about.
However, because of the relative lack of external conflict, the movie moves by at a place that is certainly quite slow, which may cause some viewers to become disinterested in the story. In many ways, it’s a crushing film, as we watch things that should be mundane and insignificant have a disproportionate impact on the character, yet the movie makes us fully understand why.
The film does have its aesthetics working in its favor, as the soundtrack and beautiful visuals will likely keep viewers transfixed on the screen even if the story doesn’t. Katelin Arizmendi’s cinematography is subtle and muted yet beautiful nonetheless, benefitting from a tremendous use of color.
Monica is such a rich, nuanced character, and much of that is thanks to an absolutely staggering performance by Lysette. It’s a very quiet role, with long sequences of no dialogue. And yet, even in scenes where she is simply dancing in a room by herself, Lysette has a commanding presence and completely radiates emotion.
That being said, even though Monica is an extraordinarily well-crafted character, the rest of the bunch does not fare quite as well. Patricia Clarkson’s performance as Monica’s aging mother is noteworthy and often compelling, but she so often takes the backseat to Lysette that she won’t leave as much of an impact as she could have.
Monica is a moving work, but in quiet, subtle ways — not the showy and sappy way that audiences might be used to seeing. Some extraordinary direction and a truly phenomenal performance by Trace Lysette make this a captivating film.
Monica hits theaters on May 12.