Transparent’s Trace Lysette stars in the Venice Competition title Monica, directed and co-written by Andrea Pallaoro, who returns to the Lido after his films Medeas and Hannah.

Set in the U.S., Monica stars Lysette as the titular character, a trans woman who is summoned home to help care for her dying mother, Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson). The casting gives a strong clue to Monica’s birth gender, but the subject is rarely addressed head-on; rather lurking in the background, occasionally alluded to with pointed stories about kids and fall-outs. Eugenia appears not to recognize Monica, mistaking her for hired help, but as the bond between them increases, both the audience and Monica begin to wonder how much she really knows about the new arrival in the home.

It’s a tender portrait of familial reconnection in difficult circumstances, with terrific performances. Clarkson puts in a sensitive, characterful turn, with strong support from Joshua Close and Emily Browning as her son and his wife, who have their own troubles.

But it’s Lysette who takes center stage, delivering a quietly powerful turn as a woman full of complexities: enigmatic in public yet vulnerable in private; modest yet flamboyant; distant then caring. It’s painful to watch her leaving pleading messages for her errant boyfriend, who isn’t there for her in her time of need. Meanwhile, her mother has her own contradictions, and worries about being a burden on others, something that rings true but is rarely shown on screen.

This shies away from the grim details of cancer and home care, instead focusing on the emotional challenges for the family and the sweet moments they manage to grab together, from nostalgic reminiscing to the sharing of lipstick between Eugenia, Monica and nurse/carer Leticia (Adriana Barraza, who was Oscar-nominated for Babel). The film has a vivid sense of touch, whether it’s a wordless, lingering affectionate moment between mother and child or an awkward embrace. There’s also subtle humor that plays on the film’s themes: at one point, a child mimics giving birth during playtime, perhaps reminding us that Monica is unable to have children of her own.

Monica is a gently-paced film that doesn’t pack an obvious emotional punch, but carries rewards for those invested in the characters and the subject matter. And after supporting roles in the likes of Hustlers, it’s good to see Lysette in a leading film role, becoming the first trans actress to headline a competition movie in Venice.

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