The Garden Left Behind Review: A Timely Character Portrait

Alves's film has a simple central tenet: Trans Lives Matter

Flavio Alves’ The Garden Left Behind is an unassuming and heartfelt New York City-set drama about a young undocumented trans woman navigating the way her various identity markers restrict and define the way she moves in the world. That it feels uncannily timely more than a year since it won the Audience Award at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival speaks highly of its success in capturing an all too familiar experience to a community that remains oft-ignored and undervalued on and off-screen.

Tina’s days feel like a nonstop set of never-ending obstacles to a well-balanced life. Her work as a livery cab driver is exhausting. The guy she’s been seeing for years still struggles with being seen in public with her. Her therapist (played by Ed Asner) insists on asking intrusive questions before he signs off on her transition. And her abuela keeps wishing they could just go back to Mexico. It all feels overwhelming but, as The Garden Left Behind stresses, these everyday financial and emotional challenges are par for the course for people like Tina — and that’s on top of fielding transphobic catcalls when walking down the street. We learn all this in candid scenes that brim with authenticity and showcase the great care its cast and crew bring to the film.

A film like Alves’s lives and dies on its central performance. Thankfully, as Tina, Carlie Guevara is wonderfully moving, gifting her character a luminous presence that balances out her impatience and exasperation with the world around her. Her resilience, always at risk of crumbling under the pressures she experiences day in and day out, is there in her weary eyes which nevertheless light up in times when she’s able to live her authentic life — be it at dinner with her lover, over drinks with her friends, at protests with fellow activists, or, more often than not, at home with her grandmother Eliana (Miriam Cruz), who keeps daydreaming about what she left behind when they both left Mexico all those years ago.

Their apartment, crammed as it is with objects that capture their life together (the fridge features childhood sketches Tina drew of them and their abuela; accompanying magnets spell out “God is Here” and “Eliana & Tina”), telegraphs just how close they are, with Alves giving us private moments between the two enjoying each other’s company — as they watch TV shows, cooking together, reminiscing about Mexico — that speak of a strong bond.

Thus, even when Eliana calls them “Antonio” and continues to refer to them using male pronouns, The Garden Left Behind doesn’t telegraph those choices as bigoted or rooted in ignorance. Instead, they embody a loving relationship that makes room for fallibility; Eliana fully supports Tina’s transition and is more than welcoming when Tina’s friends come over to celebrate her birthday, but still struggles to let go of that name she’s always used — something Alves’s script keenly returns to late in the film.

To anyone paying attention to the U.S.’s ongoing fatal anti-transgender violence epidemic — per HRC, in 2019, at least 25 transgender or gender non-conforming people were fatally shot or killed by other violent means; that number is already up to 26 this year — the final plot twist of Alves’ tender drama will feel heartbreakingly familiar. Its final title card further stresses that the film “is dedicated to the memory of all transgender men and women whose lives were lost at the hand of violence and hatred.”

The Garden Left Behind may be an empathetic character portrait of Tina but the film never loses sight of how her story deserves to be put into context: Tina’s friends, who push her to embrace her inner activist and welcome her into a tight-knit trans community who know there’ll never be justice for one until there’s justice for all, make the simple central tenet of Alves’s film (“Trans Lives Matter”) feel particularly urgent.

The Garden Left Behind opens Friday, August 28 on Virtual Cinemas, and on Tuesday, September 8 on VOD.