By Spencer Williams
Andrea Pallaoro, U.S./Italy, IFC Films
For trans people, a cruel side-effect of coming out is the perceived metaphorical “death” that occurs when a trans person declares themselves as such to family members. The trans person must then contend with the falsity of this “mourning” process, often instigated by their parents, or siblings, or grandparents, who mistakenly view the prospect of transition as one that potentially restructures not just the body but also the entire spirit the body houses, along with all the furnishings inside: the trans person’s interests, pet peeves, personality, utter being. The funereal framing of transition is inherently unstable and always offensive—the trans person is not dead, and transition may very well be the thing that keeps them from being so. And yet, there is a sense that the family is somehow owed their overwhelming grief, or anger, in the face of transition, and that they must be allowed to gather around an imaginary grave—where they can toss their projections of who the trans person could have been, or what they might have achieved.
Much less consideration is given to the view of death from the other side of the familial equation. For the trans person emerging from the closet, the risk of disclosure could signal the “death” of a parent’s unconditional love and support. From this vantage point, transition also encompasses the potential move from familial security to a literal—and often material—unmooring should the family suddenly determine they can no longer shelter the trans person. Is this particular kind of severance—from family, from housing, from food, from love—not true cause for grieving?
I make note of these fictitious “deaths” in order to construct an entryway into Andrea Pallaoro’s Monica, a spare, introspective film about mothering, homecomings, and the bruised precarity of existing as a trans daughter. Starring the luminous Trace Lysette as the titular trans woman returning home to aid her estranged, dying mother, Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson), Pallaoro’s film dramatizes the conflicts and reconciliations that are spurned by the prospect of death—both literal and metaphorical—and which help to color in the film’s intentionally terse, gap-filled proceedings.
When we meet Monica, tightly framed in the film’s boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio, she is lit by the blue, cosmetic glow of a tanning bed. Then, as she attempts to back her car out of a lot, she is obnoxiously propositioned by a man entranced by her beauty. He is beheaded by the frame at the same time she is positioned as its center. She remains this way for the duration of the film, never fixed at any point outside the margins of the camera’s view. The many close-ups of Lysette’s expressive face pump urgent lifeblood into the film’s languid core. With just a quick glance to the side, Lysette is able to communicate many years’ worth of tired experience, the draining labor of trans self-sustainability in a world hellbent on snuffing it out. With a roof over her head, a car to her name, and a job as a masseuse (and sex worker), she transcends the simplistic, ubiquitous suffering of other, less nuanced trans women movie protagonists before her. While a lesser film might see Monica spending ample runtime agonizing over her appearance, her beauty here is simply fact, not belabored or conflicted. Her less psychologically torturous troubles lie elsewhere: faulty car mechanics and tumultuous romances we catch snippets of from overheard phone calls. In this, Monica’s transness is of secondary concern. Refreshingly, the material facts of her life take precedent over considerations of identity.
Across Pallaoro’s oeuvre, charged silences remain key narrative motivators, which allow viewers to invest in the banality of his characters’ lives as they trudge forward with their days. His 2018 film Hannah hinged heavily upon Charlotte Rampling’s repeated act of gazing into the nothingness of grief as she scrubbed windows by hand or rode the train home. Rather than externalize interior tensions with a continuous stream of dialogue, Pallaoro is content with simply situating us inside the private habitats of characters who refuse to spill forth buried secrets or dramatic confessions. Even as Pallaoro’s camera brings us physically close to the women at the center of his films, they remain strangers to us, always at a protective distance. While this might be frustrating for those looking to burrow deep into the past lives of the characters, this formal privacy creates powerful tension between what is seen, what is felt, and what is ultimately known. Watching a Pallaoro film often feels crossing an unspoken boundary, like eavesdropping on a conversation not meant for outsiders to hear, or witnessing an act meant only for the eyes of the person performing it.
This is evident when we settle on an image of Monica with her back turned to us, pinching the flesh of her thigh to insert her HRT medication. We observe this ritual from the opposite end of the bed, so that it retains, in some part, the intimacy of the act, a motion of becoming that is at once particular to the trans experience and simply matter of fact. Elsewhere, as when Monica records and deletes voicemails to an offscreen lover, we are made privy to the tricky choreography of trans desire, an often-one-sided waltz where affection is conditional or fleeting. First, she records an open-hearted, rambling plea for reconciliation, then promptly deletes all traces of it, opting instead for a less emotive attempt at correspondence, a performatively blasé suggestion of want.
This thin line between active participation and hesitant communication with others is most prominently featured in Monica’s fragmented dialogues with her sister-in-law Laura (Emily Browning), her estranged brother Paul (Joshua Close), her sickly mother, and her mother’s caretaker Leticia (Adriana Barraza). Here, we are able to discern glimpses of Monica’s tenuous past but are yet again unable to grasp the full picture of her separation from them when she was a teenager. Rather, this implied trauma manifests in Monica’s wayward glances, her spectral presence standing in doorways, and her decision not to reveal herself as the cast-out child to her own mother, whose perceptions are askew due to a brain tumor.
The only time Monica’s protective guard dissolves is when she’s joyfully interacting with Laura and Paul’s young children, Brody (Graham Caldwell) and Ruby (Ruby James Fraser), who take to her like a cool older sibling. Unattuned to the discourses surrounding “accurate” binary representations, Brody and Ruby play pretend childbirth, with Ruby acting as the on-duty nurse, and Brody as the mother-in-labor. In their presence, Monica’s emotional availability is in full bloom, and she enacts a kind of care and play with them that allows the weight she’s been carrying briefly slip from her shoulders.
Even as Monica finds comfort in providing close-knit care to her niece and nephew, her own mother does not recognize the now-transitioned Monica as part of her immediate family. Playing the role of another caretaker, Monica aids Leticia in bathing her mother and administering medication she continually rebuffs. Here, Eugenia’s illness becomes a kind of double-edged sword. On the one hand, her vulnerable confusion offers Monica the chance to forge a new intimacy that strives to scab over their fractured history. On the other, Eugenia’s worsening state leaves a tiny window of time for such gestures to be made and embodied. Either way, Monica’s presence at her mother’s side—and, at one point, in bed with her—suggests the potential to transcend the kind of familial “death” that fixes a trans daughter permanently in the rearview. Rather, in the film’s last shot, Monica’s face, a conflicted mix of anguish and pride, looks straight ahead, towards a future that is both heartbreakingly uncertain and open.