Over the course of three quietly devastating features, Italian-born, America-based art-house director Andrea Pallaoro (“Medeas,” “Hannah”) has shown just how inadequate words can be when it comes to expressing some of life’s most complicated emotions. In his latest, “Monica,” Pallaoro takes on the near-universal craving for parent-child connection, knowing full well that his two lead characters — a Midwestern trans woman and the uncomprehending mom who rejected her — won’t be able to say what one another most needs to hear. But that doesn’t mean they can’t reach some kind of unspoken understanding, recognizable to those with experience reading between the lines.
More than a decade has passed since Monica (Trace Lysette) last saw her mother, Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson). Meanwhile, one could argue that her mother never saw her — not really. Pallaoro presumably wants to make things easier on us, and yet, his austere and occasionally alienating style doesn’t necessarily help. Presented in a rigid Academy ratio, the movie introduces Monica in closeup, framing her in ways that would have delighted Michelangelo Antonioni: out of focus, through a bead curtain, from awkward over-the-shoulder angles that tend to partly obscure her face — all the better for audiences to project their own personal histories onto the situation.
In an early scene, a crude, unsolicited compliment from a stranger — “Hot girl! Hot car!” — demonstrates the kind of harassment that Monica’s self-made identity has engendered. She’s not looking for attention so much as connection, and it can be painful listening to the pathetic messages she leaves on her ex-boyfriend’s voicemail. It’s probably a good thing, given the state of her private life in Los Angeles, that Monica receives an out-of-the-blue call from her sister-in-law Laura (Emily Browning) back in Ohio. It seems Eugenia is dying, and Laura felt her estranged child might like a chance to say goodbye.
Conceived with uncommon sensitivity toward the interior lives of its characters, as well as to the shifting codes of trans representation, “Monica” is a film about making amends, where the person who deserves the apology is also the one doing all the work. In that sense, a more appropriate title might have been “Santa Monica,” seeing as how its leading lady shares not just a name but also the superhuman sense of patience with the patron saint of mothers.
Monica hasn’t forgotten the day Eugenia did the seemingly unforgivable, throwing her out on the street: “I can no longer be your mother,” she told the kid, who eventually found her way to Los Angeles, a new life and a fresh identity. Returning home now, Monica chooses to hide who she is, presenting herself instead as a hospice nurse — a role for which she seems far too stiff, despite her experience as a massage therapist (which may or may not be sex work, the movie leaves vague). For Monica, being a woman comes natural, but this charade does not.
For her part, Eugenia — once an incredibly proud and elegant woman — now finds herself in a great deal of pain. She has stopped taking her pills and seems ready to accept her fate, but not the help of a stranger. Would she change her mind if she knew this were her “son”? Monica doesn’t want to risk it, and so she maintains the ruse, moving in to a spare room and discreetly reacquainting herself with the house. Instead of talking to Eugenia directly, Monica hovers in the adjacent room, eavesdropping while her brother Paul (Joshua Close) gets mom reminiscing about their childhood.
One needn’t be trans to recognize how it feels to be cut off by one’s parents, although the specificity of Monica’s situation does set Pallaoro’s film apart. The director was incredibly lucky to land Clarkson, a master of meaningful microexpressions, who excels at speaking volumes without opening her mouth. Countless indies have dealt with the tough work of watching a loved one deteriorate — like “The Savages,” to pick a hyper-articulate example — whereas this family keeps their feelings bottled up, which requires some insight on the audience’s part to unpack.
For instance, it won’t be clear to everyone why, in the middle of such a stressful situation, Monica accepts a date with someone she met online, drives miles and miles for nothing, and then winds up screwing the only guy who shows interest. The process of grieving isn’t always rational. And yet, coming back from this fiasco, Monica collapses onto her mom’s bed, and in this intimate moment of vulnerability, the two women connect. Neither one acknowledges the truth outright, but there are clues — like a family photo in which Monica’s invited to appear — that mother and daughter have worked something out, despite never having found the words.
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