Typically, trans folks in cinema are defined by tragedy. They’re corpses to be investigated by TV cops or abused bodies to inspire cis-people that trans lives have a modicum of value. Of course, being trans in America isn’t an easy existence, especially for trans people of color, but isn’t one defined exclusively by misery. The default norms for trans representation have often erased the multitude of experiences one can have as a trans individual on a day-to-day basis. Cinematic narratives linger on our anguish while ignoring opportunities to depict us as multifaceted people capable of all kinds of emotions and experiences. Thankfully, there have been features over the years that have attempted to counter this harmful norm simply by allowing trans folks to exist within the frame and inhabit nuanced lives. Sean Baker’s Tangerine and Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca immediately leap to mind as works that dare to depict trans individuals going through a wide range of emotions and being defined by more than just extreme torment. The newest in this welcome group of movies is Monica, a motion picture headlined by Trace Lysette as the titular protagonist.
Written and directed by Andrea Pallaoro, Monica’s filmmaking, inspired by the careful camerawork of Yasujiro Ozu and Chantal Akerman, does so much in transcending the cinematic norms for trans representation. However, the greatest Monica scene that encapsulates these subversive tendencies is one thriving on joy. Trans joy. What a tragically rare emotion to see depicted on-screen. And it’s a feeling accompanied by a wonderfully unexpected needle drop to boot.
What Is the Best Scene in ‘Monica’?
For much of the runtime of Monica, the focus has been on Monica returning to her childhood home to help care for her mother, Eugenia (Patricia Clarkson). The two’s relationship ceased to exist years earlier after Monica’s mom abandoned her daughter in the wake of discovering that she was trans. Now, the duo has reunited without the parental figure even realizing it. Monica’s mom has developed a tumor on her brain causing her to lose track of reality or any sense of time. As a result, she no longer recognizes her daughter. Monica is now navigating a complicated relationship with this once-important figure in her life, with both women seeing one another as strangers.
However, all that weighty material gets forgotten for one brief scene where Monica is preparing to go out for the night. She’s meeting a man at a nearby bar and wants to look good for the occasion. To depict this procedure of getting ready, Pallaoro’s camera focuses on a wider shot of Monica in her room, applying spray to her hair, lotion to her legs, and dancing to a jaunty tune. The song in question is none other than “Numa Numa,” a ditty previously best known for being a widespread meme on the internet back in the mid-2000s. A punchline for AOL users circa. 2004 is now a tune that Monica uses to feel free while getting herself prepared for the night ahead.
Pallaoro and cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi have established such a specific visual scheme for Monica up to this point, one that often obscures figures in the frame and keeps the camera incredibly still. This commitment ensures that the unique visual qualities of this Monica sequence appropriately stand out as a welcome aberration. Now the frame has pulled back a bit while the camera even moves around slightly to capture Monica grooving her body across the room to the melody of “Numa Numa”. Deviating so much from Monica’s default filming style allows this sequence to immediately stand out and capture the excitement in Monia’s soul.
Similarly, so much of Monica eschews a score to create this raw, often haunting atmosphere. There is no music to offer accentuation to the complicated emotions and characters on-screen. Moments like Eugenia crouching down in front of a staircase in the middle of the night in a confused daze sobbing over her missing mother garner an extra sense of power because of the sparse sonic landscape. Another benefit of this approach is how much it lets the very presence of “Numa Numa” in Monica’s best scene hit you like a ton of bricks. This diegetic tune offers a respite from the default auditory qualities of Monica, which accentuates the idea that Monica is happily lost in her own world here. The long-simmering familial trauma informing the absent score and the rigid camerawork is, momentarily, gone and replaced by a new atmosphere brought to life by fresh and irresistible visual and auditory norms.
‘Monica’s Best Scene Also Impresses on a Personal Level
Typically, when watching movies about trans people, I have the same reaction to when I’m seeing neurotypical individuals play autistic characters: that’s not me. Hollywood’s long-standing warped perception of the trans community makes so many on-screen trans characters visitors from another planet rather than reflections of myself or people I know. However, watching this particular unforgettable Monica scene, I was struck by how much I did relate to the images flickering up on the silver screen.
Whenever I’m preparing to go out into the world with some colorful eyeshadow or equally vivid dresses on my body, I tend to put on some tunes. Not just any tunes too, they have to be ridiculous and fun ditties. Getting ready is such a personal experience that I only have to account for my musical tastes, nobody else’s. Suddenly, the sounds of the “Donkey Kong Rap/Bring Me to Life” mash-up, a tune from the RRR soundtrack, or a Taylor Swift track fill up my ears as I pick out a skirt or lipstick shade. It’s a glorious experience combining exciting tunes, the process of embracing your gender, and eager anticipation for what the impending night could bring. All these feelings just fill up my soul with so much joy as I put on clothes and attire that reaffirm my identity. This process of getting dressed up is a sacred and deeply personal one that’s all about hammering home your own interests, whether it’s through your music or the outfit you’re planning to wear.
The importance and emotions of this procedure are vividly realized on-screen here in this Monica sequence, which allows for an aspect of trans existence that’s so often ignored in on-screen narratives. Movies that even make room for trans characters tend to focus on misery or how trans lives can support cis-people. By contrast, this moment in Monica is a burst of happiness tapping into a reality that allows a trans woman to be joyful and a little silly on-screen. Even better, the idea of Monica feeling good about herself and enjoying music isn’t presented as something shocking or subversive. It’s just another facet of her complicated personality. Even the choice of “Numa Numa” feels so perfect in that it doesn’t feel like a song a cis-person would automatically stereotype as a tune trans people would like. This needle drop just hammers home how idiosyncratic this unforgettable depiction of excitement is.
Of course, this scene in Monica works incredibly well beyond the way it resonated with me personally or how it subverts norms for how trans lives are depicted on-screen. Everything about the way it visually and sonically departs from the preceding and subsequent scenes of Monica is especially impressive while Trace Lysette’s compelling physicality in this sequence is a microcosm of her consistently transfixing Monica lead performance. However, the tragic scarcity of feature-length stories anchored by trans protagonists played by trans performers does make it worth mentioning when I finally recognize my own trans experiences in a motion picture. Here in this scene from Monica, I got to see a window into the joy, toe-tapping music, and excitement informing my preparations for going out into the world as a trans woman. It was a deeply moving experience made all the more memorable by the great filmmaking on display.
‘Monica’s Best Scene Captures Joy That’s Short-Lived But Essential
After Monica is finished listening to “Numa Numa” and getting ready for the night ahead, she heads out to a nearby bar and waits. And waits. And waits. The guy she’s hoping for never shows up. After a series of disgruntled phone calls to this dude, Monica proceeds to have sex with a random guy who’d previously flirted with her, gets into a car accident, and finally returns home to drunkenly snuggle up in her mom’s bed where she whispers to her mom “it’s me, your party girl.” It’s a night that, needless to say, did not go the way Monica was hoping it would when she was so excitedly getting her hair in order.
That’s the thing about preparing for any night out on the town as a trans woman, though. You can’t control what will happen. The world is outside of all of our hands. Great nights can suddenly turn into nightmares in the blink of an eye. Even with the innately volatile nature of the future though, we can at least exert some control over how we look confronting all that uncertainty. Recognizing the uncontrollable nature of tomorrow is part of how Monica provides an incredibly nuanced depiction of its titular leads existence. The screenplay by Pallaoro and Orlando Tirado often finds such interesting unique ways to generate conflict for its trans protagonist, such as in the fractured dynamic between Monica and her brother Paul (Joshua Close). These forms of drama don’t evoke harmful stereotypes of old but rather register as plot points unique to Monica as a film.
But just as you need darkness with the light, so too does Monica as a feature recognize that its protagonist must have moments of glee to balance out the familial strife. This is where Monica’s greatest scene comes from, all from just letting the camera roll as Monica dances around a room to the lyrics of “Numa Numa”. Here, such a specific trans lady experience and pure unbridled trans joy are in the center of the frame filtered through an assortment of qualities that allow this sequence to stand out in the framework of Monica’s entire story. Much like with a later moment of Monica just laying in the water as the sun beats down on her and serene silence surrounds her body, Monica uses its restrained camerawork and slower pacing to let moments of trans people being at peace happily simmer. These moments are a glorious thing to witness in terms of the powerful atmosphere they exude and the assured filmmaking bringing them to life. However, they’re an especially welcome sight put in the context of decades of trans representation that has only seen trans women as being good enough to function as corpses on an episode of Law & Order. With all these accomplishments and more under its belt, Monica handily dethrones Jenny Nicholson’s The Church Play Cinematic Universe video as the best feature-length production to contain the song “Numa Numa.”