‘Monica’ Review: Mother and Daughter, Both Alike in Dignity

The characters in the family drama Monica are at least not very chatty with each other. Monica (Trace Lysette) is a transgender woman who paid a heavy price to learn the meaning of loneliness. She was kicked out of her home by her mother Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson) when she was young. Now she works as a massage therapist during the day and has a video sex job to gather her extra tips. She bravely endures the humiliation of others’ attention and easily brushes off her harassers with her confidence. But her most intimate moments consist of one-sided conversations. Monica calls her lover in her absence. She asks for her reply, but her plea goes to voicemail.

Monica’s unhappy loneliness is shattered by a phone call from her stepsister, Laura (Emily Browning). Laura tells Monica that Eugenia is seriously ill and invites Monica to her parents’ house to reunite with her mother. She says Monica is back, but no one tells Eugenia that Monica is her illegitimate child.

Monica allows herself to be introduced as a stranger and moves into Eugenia’s house. For most of her films, Monica acts as her mother’s caretaker. Eugenia is embarrassed by her presence. She had no intention of hiring a hospice nurse. But despite Eugenia’s ignorance, her characters are drawn to each other. They are both women who carry themselves with great dignity, not just pain.

Director Andrea Pallaolo doesn’t burden this delicate tale of reconciliation with lengthy monologues or extensive backstory, and gives a compelling, restrained performance. Both Lysette and Clarkson are inherently charming actors who don’t waste attention directed at excessive sentimentality. They bear the burden of their characters only by wrinkling their brows. Monica and Eugenia face each other’s intense scrutiny, and both performers respond to the challenge by defending their characters’ mysteries.

Paraolo devised a way for the camera to amplify this sense of scrutiny. He shoots in a square aspect ratio, and this subtle technique gives it a framed texture. Monica and Eugenia are photographed so close up that it takes their breath away. Later in the film, Eugenia wriths in apparent pain on her overheated pillow. Credit to Palaulo and cinematographer Caitlin Arizmendi for the oppressive heat in the air for hours before her Eugenia’s plea was uttered aloud.

As the sick Eugenia is panting, Monica adjusts the bedding and holds her hand. Eugenia falls silent. With her solid performance and equally solid camera, no one needs to speak to figure out when the pain will subside.

R-rated for nudity, sexual content, and language. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. at the theater.

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