By Elias Savada.
Director Flavio Alves’s indie feature The Garden Left Behind is all about dreamers, whether they are transgender people looking for acceptance, or illegal immigrants hoping that armed authorities are more than an arm’s distance away. Alves seriously explores the trials and tribulations of a young Mexican trans woman’s hopes and aspirations in a New York City that doesn’t always acknowledge her agenda, and affectionately paints a modest story of an undocumented immigrant family’s struggle to avoid any possible detection and detention. As a debut feature, Alves has crafted a compassionate tale co-written with screenwriter John Rotundo, and the filmmakers garnered a wealth of support from GLAAD, PFLAG, IFP, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the New York Council for the Arts, The Film Society of Lincoln Center, and the Jerome Foundation, among others. It deservedly won awards at last year’s Woodstock, Nashville, and SXSW Film Festivals.
Filled with compassion, the film showcases a terrific feature film debut from the Brazil-born and New York-trained director – granted political asylum in the U.S. in 1998 – and just as stunning a welcome for Carlie Guevara, a non-experienced actor in her first film, let alone a starring role. Alves, a queer Latinx director eager to “elevate various voices from marginalized communities that are otherwise often overlooked,” peppered his behind-the-camera crew with a large group of transgender technicians. He also made a seismic effort to place trans actors in trans roles. Quite a change from the days when most directors would fill those parts (think Boys Don’t Cry and Transamerica) with cisgender actors.
As we meet Tina (Guevera), she is transitioning from her life as Antonio Z. Carrera. The hair, makeup, and wardrobe all point to her preferred gender, but the final steps lay ahead, and some appear very steep for her – physically, emotionally, and financially. Her work hours are spent drudgingly driving a livery limousine for the Rouge Taxi Company, but she’s comfortably settled in the small Bronx apartment she shares with her doting, Spanish-speaking grandmother Eliana (a superb and often very funny Miriam Cruz), who doesn’t understand her granddaughter’s reasons – and continues to call her Antonio – but contentedly supports and loves her nieta. In her small social circle, Tina’s trans friends offer support as she prepares for the various doctors (including Ed Asner, in a touching supporting role as a psychologist) from whom she needs approvals for her operations.
Tina’s male lover, a ne’er-do-well named Jason (Alex Kruz), isn’t really boyfriend material. Although he does offer her a date on the town, he prefers to keep their arrangement, mostly sexual in nature, from public view. Tina does have a secret admirer, Chris (Anthony Abdo), a sullen, long-haired bodega clerk who seemingly harbors a silent crush on her. His character is poorly drawn, or meant to be, but he most definitely becomes a surprisingly central character late in the film. The film offsets these several downer male roles with some lovely transwomen friends, especially Carol Santoro (Tamara M. Williams, who was featured in the FX series Pose).
Michael Madsen makes a very brief appearance as a friendly bartender who gives Tina a job.
The film is often a somber piece with lots of self-reflection. Those eyeglasses Tina wears seemed to be focused inward as much as outward. When used sparingly, the melancholy score from Robert Pycior is quite effective. Koshi Kiyokawa’s camerawork playfully admires Tina, caressing her body as she bathes without being too observant. He captures the beauty that Guevara reads so elegantly into her role.
When Tina and Carol are interviewed by a television reporter, protesting the violence foisted on one of their trans friends, Tina has a strong voice, “We experience discrimination on a daily basis…. These are evils that threaten our daily lives, and we want to protect it. It ends here!”
The Garden Left Behind offers a somber manifesto without being preachy.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).