The poignant family drama “Monica” is full of artful mirror shots, serving striking visual reminders of the many angles that shape a life. There’s also something poetic about the sidelong coverage when you consider the film’s luminous star has spent her career as a supporting act — when she’s clearly meant to be a leading lady. Whether she’s seen in a sleek compact, a glancing rearview, or a profile in patina, there’s no such thing as too much Trace Lysette. Delivering both gravitas and levity as the central character in “Monica,” she’s finally given the chance to shine.
Most audiences will recognize Lysette from her breakthrough role as Shea in the groundbreaking series “Transparent,” or opposite Jennifer Lopez in “Hustlers,” where her casting was a major boon for trans representation in a studio movie. Even with such high profile gigs, it’s been a long road for Lysette and for “Monica,” for which she first auditioned in early 2017. The pandemic, funding scarcity, and casting issues (Anna Paquin was originally attached in a supporting role) delayed production until the summer of 2021. Through it all, Lysette remained steadfast in her commitment to the project.
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Told with minimal exposition, “Monica” revolves around a trans woman who returns home after many years to be with her estranged mother Eugenia, who is suffering from dementia. Played by the incomparable Patricia Clarkson, Eugenia is caustic and childlike, both a powerful loose cannon and a frail old woman. Though their relationship is clear to the audience, Eugenia thinks Monica is just another person to help with her care. As Monica attempts to reconnect with her mother, the two women engage in a delicate dance of acceptance and forgiveness, with neither ever fully pinning down where the other stands.
“I knew it was really rare to center a trans woman in a title character, and I knew that this story wasn’t an atypical trans story in that a lot of us have rifts with our blood family. And that it being told through her eyes and not other people’s was really rare,” Lysette said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “So even though the dialogue was sparse, I just knew that if I got the chance to do it, I could make it work.”
Though the dialogue was minimal, Lysette saw potential in the nascent project. The director is César-nominated Italian filmmaker Andrea Pallaoro, whose first two feature films premiered at the Venice Film Festival and centered women leads. Pallaoro penned the “Monica” script with his longtime collaborator Orlando Tirado, both cisgender men.
With this in mind, Lysette did something she doesn’t usually recommend: She gave notes for free.
“Andrea wrote a great script, but it was written by a cis man,” she said. “Before I had the job, Andrea and I were having a discussion about it, and they wanted to know what I thought. I don’t recommend this, but I did give them a round of free notes. They asked and I gave it freely, but I also wanted them to know how invested I was in telling this story.”
Lysette illustrates a unique predicament that often faces performers from marginalized identities; whether or not to draw on their own experience to improve someone else’s project. In this case, she was grateful to be met by collaborators who not only listened to her, but recognized and compensated her for her expertise by being named an executive producer.
“If someone says, ‘Let me know your thoughts,’ and then you discuss a larger conversation around a script, I think it can be tricky, especially for marginalized groups. Because at the end of the day, we’ve got to put food on the table. And if we’re lending our life experience, you hope that there’s some sort of a check attached to it. But I don’t think I was expecting that at that point,” she said. “I was in a place of just generosity and just wanting this story to be right, and wanting to show them how passionate I was. … And in the end, they brought me on as a executive producer, which was good.”
There were two key moments where Lysette’s advocacy really stood out: When she fought to cut an instance of Monica being deadnamed, and when she lobbied to include a scene of Monica performing sex work.
“At one point there was a line where it gets said to her and we were like, ‘Maybe we’re past that.’ And it became a large discussion. And thankfully, they were collaborative and wanted to do what the trans voices on set thought was the right thing to do. So we ended up not saying that line,” she said. “I think it was much more elegant and beautiful that way. … I love that it’s not heavy-handed.”
To show how Monica made a living, Lysette felt strongly about representing the many trans women who survive on sex work. Not only for authenticity, but to highlight the limited employment options available to trans women. In the first act of the film, we see Monica performing on-camera sex work through her laptop in her hotel room. For Lysette, this one was personal.
“I come from the hustle. I come from survival sex work, and pre-internet survival sex work, so old school sex work in the West Village. I was like, ‘We have to see a glimpse of something because the girls are out here doing what they have to do to survive with what society has given them, which isn’t much,'” Lysette said. “I fought for that to get put back in. It wasn’t in the final cut of the film. … There was actually another trick at the top of the film where I’m jacking off the guy who I give the massage to, and that got taken out as well. And I thought, ‘Well, we need one or the other. We need to know what she does to survive.'”
All that behind-the-scenes work doesn’t detract one bit from Lysette’s performance, which is gracefully dialed in and expansively nuanced. Monica stays remarkably collected throughout the trying circumstances, rarely expressing the full range of her emotions with conventional outbursts or monologues.
But she is always onscreen, even if in oblique profiles or at odd angles, and Lysette is able to translate depths of experience with very little speech to fall back on.
“A lot of people don’t always want to confront the tough stuff. And I think with the limited time they had left, that’s why you don’t see some big blowout scene with her mom on her deathbed. … I thought it was interesting and beautiful and it’s definitely a choice,” she said. “So you cannot phone it in, because it reads. There were no easy scenes. And I knew that going in, I knew how much would be going through Monica’s mind at any given time and through her heart. There was a lot of internal work that had to go on in every single scene. There were no light days.”
IFC Films will release “Monica” in limited theaters on May 12, 2023.
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