The Movie Waffler New to MUBI - MONICA | The Movie Waffler


A trans woman returns home to care for her estranged mother.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Andrea Pallaoro

Starring: Trace Lysette, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Browning, Joshua Close, Adriana Barraza

Monica poster

Andrea Pallaoro's Monica has the sort of premise that would probably have been played for cheap laughs not so long ago. It's almost a reversal of Mrs Doubtfire, with a protagonist pretending to be someone else in order to spend time with a family member. But this is a film that is in sympathetic lockstep with its trans protagonist, while also avoiding making one-note villains of those who can't understand her.

Monica review

The titular Monica (Trace Lysette) is a trans woman who has been estranged from her family since long before her transition. When her brother, Paul (Joshua Close), tracks her down he brings bad news. Their mother, Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson), is suffering from a brain tumour, is largely confined to bed and likely doesn't have long left. Monica decides to return to her childhood home, but when she gets there her mother doesn't recognise the child she only ever knew as her son.

Mistaken for a live-in caregiver, Monica keeps her identity a secret from her mother. Seeing the woman who once treated her so coldly in such a vulnerable state seems to prompt a forgiveness in Monica, and ironically Eugenia treats her like the daughter she always wanted.

Monica review

In blunter filmmaking hands, Monica would inevitably lead to tearful monologues and fiery confrontations, but Pallaoro takes a refreshingly subtle and nuanced approach to this subject. Monica and Eugenia bond through glances and touches rather than dialogue. The former's physical therapy allows an intimacy with her mother. Monica's hands, which we initially saw perform a massage for a seedy male client, are employed in an increasingly affectionate manner, her gentle physicality salving the wounds of past words. Seeing how Monica kneads her mother's tender flesh tells us more about her unspoken reconciliation than any bombastic Oscar speech.

Awards bodies tend to focus on dialogue though, which means Lysette and Clarkson's wonderful performances will no doubt be overlooked. Yet the two are quietly fantastic as two women gradually meeting in the middle. Clarkson does enough to suggest that Eugenia may indeed be aware of Monica's true identity, with telling glances in her character's more lucid moments. Lysette is given a largely dialogue free role that requires her to embody the part through physicality. The ritual of donning make-up and dancing alone in her room before a night out (Lysette was once a staple of New York's club scene) suggests that Monica can only really be herself when she's away from people. Monica is truly alive in these scenes, which makes the subsequent disastrous night out so dispiriting. Stood up by a Tinder date whom she lambasts via voicemail for using her as "an experiment," Monica gives in to the advances of a lecherous truck driver. The resulting shag in his lorry is a curiously liberating experience. Unaware of her trans status, the trucker may not exactly treat Monica how a woman might wish to be treated, but he treats her like a woman, which ultimately is all Monica asks of the world.

Monica review

A teal and amber colour scheme is often the refuge of uninspired filmmakers, but Monica deploys this dynamic in stunning fashion. Monica's blue eyes are contrasted with her honeycomb skin; Eugenia's hair with her dresses; dappled sunlight with the water of a lake; all to striking effect. The colour scheme also has a thematic resonance, suggesting that contrast of warmth and coldness that exists in the dynamic between Monica and her mother, warm light slowly seeping into shadowy darkness as the two silently bond. With its focus on cinematic ambience and character building over didactic sermonising, Monica is a key work of trans cinema.

 is on MUBI UK now.