'The Garden Left Behind' is a loving depiction of a trans woman struggling to find her place in the world
By Andrea Thompson
“The Garden Left Behind” opens with a woman walking alone at night on a deserted street – always a cause for concern. When she fearfully turns after a car pulls up next to her, the identify of the man staring at her, or just his intentions, will probably determine her immediate, and most likely future, well-being.
The film then rewinds to bring her world to life. The woman turns out to be Tina (the incredible Carlie Guevara), a Mexican-American trans woman struggling to make a life for herself and her grandmother Eliana (Miriam Cruz) in New York City. It's certainly quite a story for a first feature, but director and co-writer Flavio Alves manages to bring Tina to life in all her complexity and concerns.
Crucially, the people around her feel just as alive. Tina and her grandmother have a very close, loving relationship (even if Eliana constantly misgenders Tina), but they also have very different ideas of what they want their life to look like, and Alves ensures that not all of it revolves around Tina's identity. Rather, where Tina and Eliana typically butt heads is the fact that for Eliana, Mexico remains her home. She wants Tina to stay in their apartment rather than going out, and she's certainly in denial about the fact that Tina has an active sex life with her boyfriend Jason (Alex Kruz), who at two years is just barely allowing himself to be seen in public with Tina.
That's not to say Alves doesn't quietly yet forcefully acknowledge just how much danger Tina is in simply by existing. In her work as a cab driver and later, bartender (with Michael Madsen in a small but memorable role as the one who gives her the job), customers are generally not uncomfortable in her presence. It's in her daily life where Tina's vulnerability is emphasized, with the camera gazing at her from afar and focusing on other people while she's at the corner store, creating a sense of menace in simple errands which could easily end in violence.
It's a fact Tina and her friends, most of whom are also trans women of color, are aware of, especially when an unseen member of their group is beaten by police and hospitalized. In one of the film's more touching sequences, Tina and her circle (all of whom are played by trans women and could easily carry movies of their own) decide to organize and speak for themselves, with Tina becoming a more confident person after she reluctantly, then passionately, becomes an activist on behalf of herself and others.
She's also struggling to transition. While many films emphasize the physical changes and the surgery itself, “The Garden Left Behind” has Tina wrestling with an element that's rarely emphasized: getting permission to have surgery. Time and again, Tina has to go to various sessions with a psychiatrist (the legendary Edward Asner) to try to explain just why she wants to go through with this so he can approve her. The obstacles also don't end there, as halfway through the film, it's revealed (to those who don't recognize the earlier indicators) that Tina and Eliana are also undocumented, adding further complications and vulnerabilities as Tina must pay not only pay for the surgery itself, but various documents she'll need to hide her status.
Chris (Anthony Abdo in a brilliantly wordless performance), the young man watching her in the film's opening minutes is also a wild card. He clearly doesn't fit in to his friends circle comprised of obnoxious jocks, and all the crudeness and toxic masculinity he's expected to not only embrace, but enjoy. He also clearly admires Tina from afar, and the community she's managed to build. But he's also filled with self-hatred for his own identity, one he doesn't have the courage to embrace it like Tina has.
Their collision course is the one false note the film has, choosing to ultimately use Tina and her struggles as yet another example of a trans person's story ending in trauma and tragedy, one that becomes less about the individual and more about the collective suffering of a community that also has many positive stories. The fact that it reduces someone like Tina to yet another statistic is as devastating as the film's ending. During the end credits, the film notes that 2018 was the deadliest year for trans women on record, noting that nearly all the victims were trans women of color, dedicating the film to those who lost their lives. But it's frustrating that “The Garden Left Behind” mostly reduces their stories in the same way.