Monica is the kind of movie that makes you feel as though you’re eavesdropping on someone else’s life. The pace is languid, the dialogue naturalistic. That will be a turn-off for viewers who like their dramas on the bolder side. Get into its rhythms, though, and the film achieves real power.

The title character, played by Trace Lysette, is a transgender woman. Her mother Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson) is gravely ill, so Monica returns home to care for her in her final days. It’s the first time they’ve seen one another in over a decade. Still wounded from her mom’s rejection all those years ago, Monica presents herself as a hospice nurse rather than acknowledging her true identity and therefore potentially subjecting herself to even more rejection. (It’s inferred that she has transitioned significantly in the interim, which is why her mother doesn’t appear to recognize her.) The film looks at how she attempts to find some sort of reconciliation before Eugenia’s time runs out.

Compounding the matter are other family interactions. Brother Paul (Joshua Close) is civil toward Monica, yet clearly leans in their mother’s direction regarding her identity. On the other hand, his wife Laura (Emily Browning) strives to show compassion, although she’s awkward in doing it.

Not much happens in Monica that’s overt. The drama is found in the spaces in between – in the way characters look at each other, in their body language, in the things that are clearly felt without being said. In other words, little occurs on the surface, but a lot happens below the surface. Director Andrea Pallaoro utilizes a square aspect ratio to enhance the movie’s intimacy and relies almost exclusively on static shots that allow us to scrutinize the characters.

Over time, we can see Monica coming to terms with Eugenia’s attitude toward her and the impact it’s had on her self-esteem. The film is ultimately about how, as a transgender woman, she has made a choice to be true to herself, despite being aware it would take a toll on her familial relationships. We’re living in a time when trans men and women are demonized in some quarters, their experiences minimized by people who don’t want to even try to understand. Monica is a picture that builds empathy by depicting a few of the issues members of the transgender community face within their families. Watching it play out in cinematic form is heartbreaking.

The pace of Monica is frustratingly slow in a couple spots. However, that does nothing to diminish the impact of the themes. Trace Lysette gives a sincere, emotionally nuanced performance that earns your compassion. She’s extraordinary, and her scenes with Patricia Clarkson have real poignancy. What these actresses do, individually and together, is truly special and more than enough reason to check out the film.

out of four

Monica is rated R for sexual content, nudity, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.