A gentle film with moments of both staggering beauty and shattering ugliness, The Garden Left Behind becomes an important human document by zeroing in on the singular and the intimate. In focusing on one trans woman’s struggle to have agency over her own life and a say in her own identity, director Flavio Alves is able to capture something at once deeply specific but also universal to all us lonely humans looking for any person or community that can accept us and accept our love.
Newcomer Carlie Guevara stars as Tina, a young trans woman living in New York City with her grandmother, Eliana (Miriam Cruz). Tina has lived in America as an undocumented immigrant since the age of 6, making ends meet as a gypsy cab driver while she saves up for her hoped-for transition. While Eliana longs to return to Mexico, Tina has built a somewhat stable life for herself. She has a boyfriend, Jason (Alex Kruz), and a loving circle of friends cheering her on. But Tina’s life and identity are constantly under siege due to her status as undocumented, and due to the horrific social conditions that continue to exist for trans people. Jason might swear blind that he doesn’t care about the hate-speech flung the couple’s way whenever they walk down the street together, but the weight of these pressures clearly deeply impacts both him and Tina.
Soon events begin pushing Tina out of the delicate existence she has built for herself. She begins meeting with a doctor (Ed Asner) whose approval she will need in order to transition, Jason pulls away just as Tina is hoping to get more serious with their relationship, and an incident of police brutality against another trans woman inspires Tina’s friends and community to begin rising up in concentrated protest for trans rights.
Running parallel to Tina’s story is that of Chris (Anthony Abdo), a tight-lipped young man who works at the bodega that Tina frequents. Chris is surrounded by the most toxic of toxic male personalities, but he finds himself drawn to Tina in ways he is unable to articulate.
While The Garden Left Behind is peppered with familiar faces like Asner (Michael Madsen also pops in to work some cowboy charisma into the mix) the thrust of the film rests entirely on a largely unknown cast. Pointedly and refreshingly, all trans characters are played by actual trans people. And if some of the line-readings are on the stiff side, the tradeoff in authenticity is more than welcome. Alves’ camera often emphasizes intimate sensations and experiences, not as a means of fetish but the better to connect you with these characters and their experiences of the world.
Bath water on the inside of your thigh, skin against skin, wind tugging at your hair.
Guevara is the focus of much of this intimate viewing, and she gives an utterly fearless performance. Tina is so guarded that at times she might threaten to become a blank, especially in comparison to her loud and proud friends. But Guevara communicates so much profound feeling just through her eyes, framed by large glasses, that you never lose sight of Tina even at those times when she recoils from being seen.
Two sequences in particular took my breath away: In one, Tina visits a speech pathologist and plays along with suggested games like blow raspberries and making other funny noises to exercise the vocal chords. The camera is tight on Guevara’s face as she giggles and falters trying to make the directed noises, her fears and insecurities at last forgotten, her joy entirely free and utterly infectious. This feels like a stolen holy moment, like a precious thing we are being allowed to experience with her.
In the other, later in the film, Tina is dealt a devastating emotional blow and you witness her absolutely crumple. The camera hangs a bit further back, letting you feel the entire physical response of grief and pain. It’s as raw as film acting gets and hours later I am still shaken by that outburst of unrestrained agony.
Honestly, The Garden Left Behind as a whole has left me quite shaken. This is a film forged out of profound heartbreak and its conclusion has your own heart square in its crosshairs. The ending is shocking despite its overwhelming inevitability, its cruelty felt all the more because it is a cruelty pulled directly from our reality onto the screen.
In demystifying the transition process, in depicting trans life (which is to say, “life”) and its balances of failed dejections and sporadic graces, The Garden Left Behind serves as a potent reminder of how precious each life is, and the violation that is a life being curbed by bigotry.
It’s repulsive that we still need art to remind us of these facts, but great art like The Garden Left Behind writes this truth in fire.
The Garden Left Behind is available in virtual cinemas now, and will be released to VOD on September 8.