Trace Lysette in her first lead role, after appearing in the Amazon series “Transparent” and the film “Hustlers,” is magnetic as a sex worker named Monica, abandoned as a teenager by her mother Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson) who is now terminally ill. She gets the news while going through a messy breakup with her boyfriend, so she packs her bags and leaves California for her childhood home in Ohio to reconcile with her mother, brother Paul (Joshua Close), and his family including wife Laura (Emily Browning) whom she’s never met. The slow-burn drama isn’t concerned with how we got here, but how do we fix it. Forgiveness is the first step.

New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” opens the film as Monica works on her tan, golden skin for the Golden State. Her fiery red hair stands out against the blue sky and green palm trees, and it goes well with her red convertible. Our eponymous leading lady looks as though she just stepped out of a Patrick Nagle painting. Like the artist, she was born in Ohio but ended up in California. Her journey, however, meant living on the streets of Los Angeles after being kicked out of the house by her mother Eugenia who couldn’t accept Monica’s gender identity.

Writer-director Andrea Pallaoro and regular collaborator and cowriter Orlando Tirado stay focused on the present and family. The film never explores Monica’s past before she transitioned. Lysette, a trans actress, shared experiences with her character. She too was estranged from her family at one time and grew up in Ohio. There’s no deadnaming in the script and Monica’s sexuality is never mentioned, and only vaguely implied. If you were to walk blindly into a screening you may leave unaware that you just watched a trans film.

One day Monica receives a phone call from Laura, the sister-in-law she never knew existed. Browning is very good in the role as the liaison between Monica and her estranged brother Paul. We only hear half the conversation, but judging by Monica’s responses, we understand that her mother Eugenia is very sick. We learn that it’s cancer, and hospice care may be right around the corner.

Patricia Clarkson delivers another superb performance, as the soft-spoken matriarch who refuses hospice care. Most of the time she’s in a serene mood unless it’s time to take her meds, which she often rejects. When Monica returns to Ohio, she’s introduced to her mother by Paul as another caregiver who has come to assist her regular carer Leticia played by prominent Mexican actress Adriana Barraza who was featured as Gael García Bernal’s mother in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Amores perros” and went on to receive an Oscar nomination for her performance in Iñárritu’s “Babel.”

At first, Monica is surprised that her mother didn’t recognize her, but Paul asks, “Well, did you expect her to?” A valid question. He wonders if she will eventually tell her and so does the audience. Think of the implications. If Monica discloses her identity she could face rejection again, but also Eugenia may have feelings of remorse and ask for forgiveness. It’s quite a quandary. For now, Monica is the only one with the power to forgive and reconcile.

Shot in a narrow 1:1 aspect ratio which keeps the focus on the subjects within the frame, the boxy configuration enhances the isolation experienced by Monica as cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi zooms in on Lysette’s face. There are plenty of reflective moments in the film that feature no dialogue which are enhanced by Arizmendi’s framing. My favorite involves Monica giving her mother a bath. The camera remains zoomed in on Clarkson’s face and for a moment it feels like she recognizes Monica as her child. It’s a very special scene. Pallaoro loves long single shots. The continuous take keeps the viewer in the moment. It’s pure cinema that benefits from the omission of edits.

Production designer Andrew Clark gives the film a retro aesthetic which takes the modern setting and gives it an 80s feel. From the motel rooms with window-unit air conditioners to the cars featured in the film, Monica’s classic convertible is seen next to an older model Mercedes and a Volkswagen Microbus at a roadside gas station. Apart from the usage of iPhones and the Valero gas station’s sign which reflects current prices, the setting feels like decades past. The tone is enhanced by the music of New Order, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and Pulp. Even the newer songs have an old-school quality, like the beautiful “Heaven” by The Blaze.

“Monica” is a survival tale that reflects the deep-rooted consequences of abandonment. It’s about family, forgiveness, and the healing process that begins by moving forward. The spotlight is not on being a transgender woman, she just happens to be the film’s protagonist. I look forward to more films featuring trans characters and actors functioning within the confines of a film where their sexuality is not the focal point.

Trace Lysette is terrific in one of the best performances of the year. It’s a brave and bold film that ends on a high note while remaining focused on the present; the future is unknown, and the past is never explored. “Monica” features good performances all around from a talented cast highlighting Andrea Pallaoro’s third feature film. Powerful.

(4 stars)

Now showing at the Violet Crown Cinema and available PVOD

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Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.