Instead of the big dramatic confrontations that one might expect in a film like this, the screenplay is more interested in exploring the quiet human truths that arise out of the situation in ways that end up having a much more significant impact. Here is a film where the big emotional climax comes in the form of one person giving another a back rub, and even though very little dialogue is spoken during this scene, the sight of one person’s hand tenderly kneading and soothing the other’s flesh shares everything that needs to be said at that moment. There is maybe one section in “Monica” that stumbles, in which she goes out one night to meet a man from the internet, and it doesn’t go off quite as planned. It isn’t necessarily bad, per se, but it’s the one portion of the film that’s somewhat familiar.
Clarkson, as always, is quite strong as Eugenia. She does an excellent job depicting her character going through the cruelties that often come toward the end of life, engendering enormous sympathy while simultaneously suggesting the unflinching mindset that caused that break with her child years earlier. And Adriana Barraza is very good as Eugenia’s dedicated care worker who also befriends Monica.
But the film’s best performance—which transforms “Monica” from a well-made drama into an absolute must-see—comes from Lysette. You may have seen her before in several episodes of “Transparent” and also in “Hustlers.” Lysette is front and center here in a part that makes her the focus of virtually every scene and covers nearly the entire emotional gamut. It’s not an easy character to play, requiring someone who can offer a convincing sense of personal isolation throughout, even when ostensibly interacting with others. Lysette pulls it off beautifully—there isn’t a false moment in her performance, and even when the film observes her going through ostensibly mundane tasks, she remains a commanding and compelling presence. Simply put, this great work made me instantly eager to see what she does next.
While I presume that Pallaoro’s film will no doubt resonate on a deeper level with viewers who personally recognize Monica’s experience, anyone who loves a robust, well-told character study will appreciate this movie. Formally intriguing and genuinely gripping, “Monica” avoids the usual cliches and contains many lovely performances and graceful moments. Even the most jaded moviegoers may be surprised by how much “Monica” moves them.
Now playing in theaters.