‘Monica’ review: Trace Lysette deserves an Oscar for this impeccable 2023 drama
5 mins read

‘Monica’ review: Trace Lysette deserves an Oscar for this impeccable 2023 drama

It’s that time of year again: As 2023 comes to a close, critics hype up the year’s very best films. In a year stuffed with sensational cinema, some fantastic movies are bound to get left off lists, with wonderful performances getting overlooked in the bigger awards conversations. Monica, directed by Andrea Pallaoro, is such a film. 

One of the best movies of the year, Monica is an intimate, intelligent story about family — and how to survive it in order to become comfortable with ourselves. 

In the lead role, Trace Lysette (Transparent) brings Monica to life in a vibrant, endlessly compelling performance. While many films about queer people are about them finding themselves (see But I’m A Cheerleader, Brokeback Mountain, God’s Own Country), Monica has already found herself. It’s up to others to find her. When her estranged mother Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson) gets ill, a heart-wrenching opportunity arises. 

Monica left home as a teen and hasn’t been back since. Now an out-and-proud trans woman, she wouldn’t be recognized by anyone she grew up with — not even Eugenia. Leaving behind the heartbreak of a recent breakup and her work as a camgirl, Monica reenters her childhood home and allows her ailing mother to assume she’s a professional caregiver. Incredibly, from this lie, a new path to honesty emerges. 

Monica tells a tender family story.

A family poses for a photo in "Monica."

Credit: IFC Films

Monica’s relationship with Eugenia is the film’s heart, and both Lysette and Clarkson are tremendous. At first, Eugenia hesitates about another caregiver — she’s happy with the one she already has. But despite her not knowing Monica is her daughter, their relationship grows close over the course of the film. It’s incredibly difficult for Monica to process it all; years of pain and disappointment have built up, and returning to her family forces her to reckon with everything she’s put aside for so long. 

In this tenderly observed film, Pallaoro favors a static camera, observing Monica in long takes. The camera keeps her close, watching as she goes through an average day, driving, getting dressed, talking on the phone — and in one particularly vulnerable shot — giving herself a hormone injection, a normal part of the trans experience rarely shown on screen. The stillness of the cinematography invites the audience to recognize the beauty in the life Monica has built on her own. 

Dialogue is sparse in Monica, but it doesn’t need a lot of talk. What these characters are feeling comes across through their performances, and particularly what they want to be saying, even if they cannot find the words.

A moment of overwhelming emotion occurs towards the end of the film, when Monica helps her mother bathe. There are no words exchanged, but the tearful eyes of Eugenia, both sorrowful and joyful, are potent. Eugenia gazes deep into Monica’s eyes, giving her a look that she’s likely waited her entire life for. There’s a lot of love between these two — whether Eugenia recognizes that Monica is her daughter or not — that so beautifully reflects their challenging relationship. It’s taken so long to get to a point of understanding, but this single glance suggests that peace may finally exist between Eugenia and Monica. 

Trace Lysette astonishes in every frame of Monica.

Trace Lysette and Patricia Clarkson in "Monica."

Credit: IFC Films

Great performances take us into a new world and provide us with a fresh perspective and new way of experiencing, and that’s exactly what Lysette accomplishes here. Hers is not a big, showy performance; there are no winding monologues, nor shouting matches that tend to demand the attention of awards bodies. She welcomes us gently into Monica’s world, using a subtle physicality to bring the entirety of Monica’s life to the screen — a furrowed brow, a shrug, a lip tremble communicate her pain and happiness. Through these concentrated close-ups, the shift in her countenance shows a lifetime of walls she’s built up gradually come down, and witnessing this incredible intimacy is one of the most remarkable experiences in film this year.

When she does speak, much can be conveyed in a single word. When Eugenia asks her name, Lysette’s delivery of “Monica” is densely layered, conveying a lifetime of pain and longing into a mere three syllables. In this moment, Monica introduces her authentic self to her mother, which should be a thrilling feeling. But since Eugenia doesn’t know Monica is her daughter, there’s a sense of disappointment to Lysette’s hushed tone, understanding that her mother may never get to see who she really is. 

Monica is a fascinating and illuminating portrait that captures the breadth of the trans experience. While we’ve seen an uptick in films about all sorts of queer people, the trans community is still drastically underserved. “I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen a film with a trans person as lead,” Lysette said in an interview with The Guardian. But Monica offers something worthy of our attention. Because of Lysette’s generous performance, Monica is more than her identity — she’s a complete person who wants nothing more than to find happiness in an unforgiving world.

Monica is now streaming on AMC+ and available for rental or purchase on Prime Video.

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