The Spool / Festivals
Reeling: “The Garden Left Behind” Is Powerful Trans Filmmaking
Flavio Alves' story of a trans immigrant in New York City may be rough around the edges, but it serves as important advocacy.
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Flavio Alves’ story of a trans immigrant in New York City may be rough around the edges, but it serves as important advocacy.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 36th Reeling LGBTQ+ International Film Festival.)

“It’s good to have a loud voice,” says a speech therapist to Mexican trans woman Tina (Carlie Guevara) as she guides her through her first session to feminize her voice. “It’s good to be heard,” Tina says.

This exchange, fifty minutes into a movie where Tina has already been through so much, sits at the beating, activist heart of The Garden Left Behind, a movie that serves as much as a teaching tool for the struggles of trans women of color as it does an effective, well-intentioned drama. Directed by Flavio Alves, a Brazilian refugee turned US citizen, The Garden Left Behind feels like a vibrant first step in a new era of trans-positive filmmaking — it’s a message movie, to be sure, but there’s a deftness and sensitivity to the presentation that provides plenty of sugar to go with the pill.

(Listen: The Spool’s interview with Flavio Alves about The Garden Left Behind.)

Tina’s struggle is at once an amalgamation of the struggles that many trans women (especially trans women of color go through) and an individual story all on her own. An undocumented immigrant living with her abuela Eliana (Miriam Cruz) and working as a ghost cab to make ends meet, Tina certainly has a lot on her plate. She’s in the early stages of her transition, working with a therapist (Ed Asner) to get a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria so she can start gender corrective surgery. She enjoys her relationship with a cis man (Alex Kruz), even as he remains embarrassed to be seen with her in public. And the brutal beating of a trans woman in her community pushes her to become more politically active, even as her grandmother’s entreaties to return to Mexico grow ever louder.

The true joys of Garden can be found largely in Guevara’s performance, which feels authentic and unpracticed in a way that aids Tina’s innocence. She’s an idealistic, open-eyed waif, a gentle soul who just wants to live, love her grandmother, and work toward the life and body she truly wants. Sometimes the script makes her a little too perfect (bad things happen to her, not because of her), but this also serves the sociological oomph of Alves’ film: she does absolutely nothing to deserve the struggles she has to go through. DP Koshi Kiyokawa captures the feel of the New York neighborhoods it was filmed in – Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx – and lovingly pauses to take in Guevara’s soulful eyes and careful, sly smiles. The camera loves her, and the film asks you to love her too. The request is an easy one to fulfill.

The supporting players around Tina also turn in sensitive, underplayed performances that serve to further highlight Guevera’s natural warmth. Cruz has an easy chemistry with her, and Eliana’s relationship with her trans daughter is a complicated one. There’s a clear, nonjudgmental love present while she still insists on deadnaming, and her journey to accepting her child’s true self is both affirming and heartbreaking, especially in the film’s final moments. The film’s two big names, Asner and Michael Madsen as an empathetic bartender who gives Tina a job at the moment she needs it the most, turn in workmanlike performances but are otherwise inconsequential roles intended to bolster the film’s name recognition. It’s a calculus I’m perfectly fine with.

Throughout the ups and downs of Tina’s life, though, we’re constantly reminded of the fate Alves implies for poor Tina. The film’s opening minutes see Tina heartbroken, walking down an empty street at night, while a mysterious white man eyes her with suspicion and no small amount of resentment. It’s not hard to see where Tina’s destiny might lie, but Alves (and co-writer John Rotondo) take us back in time to see the circumstances that led her to that end – which offer some unexpected surprises.

The camera loves [Guevara], and the film asks you to love her too. The request is an easy one to fulfill.

Intriguingly, The Garden Left Behind also chooses to track the perspective of Tina’s would-be attacker, a convenience store attendant named Chris (Anthony Abdo) who develops some complicated, albeit ill-defined, feelings about Tina that lead him to violent reactions. Well-intentioned as it is, it’s this element that offers the film’s biggest hurdle; Chris’ journey is a bundle of cliches that not only conflict (he’s in love with her, he may have some gender confusion himself, he’s pressured by his toxically masculine friends) but actively detract from Tina’s more nuanced, humanistic story. Maybe if the balance were more equitable, it would have worked better. As it is, it feels vestigial to the story we want to follow. Tina’s fate is heartbreaking enough if it’s random violence from a stranger; throwing in a convoluted subplot about the myriad motivations of her attacker ends up distracting from, rather than further illuminating, her struggles.

An independent feature financed largely through eBay crowdfunding, and featuring largely unknowns — a move intended to provide trans and Latinx voices with significant creative roles — there’s a shaggy-dog sensibility to the proceedings that belies its humble beginnings. But what the film lacks in narrative finesse it more than compensates for in urgency, sensitivity and timeliness, making it a formative text for those who still need a primer on how and why trans people of color suffer in modern-day America.

The Garden Left Behind Clip: