The Garden Left Behind Review
On first appearance, The Garden Left Behind seems like a film attempting to take the right steps – casting a trans woman in a trans role and focussing on her story of transition and surviving as an undocumented citizen in another country. Director Flavio Alves’ debut feature wants to address the violence trans and gender non-conforming people are exposed to in the US (the majority being Black people), but is ultimately tangled up with a muddled weaving together of ideas.
The story centres on Tina (a good performance from newcomer Carlie Guevara), an undocumented Mexican migrant who has lived in the US for the past few years with her grandmother Eliana (Miram Cruz). She uses her car as a licenced cab in New York, earning money to pay the bills, and regularly meets with a psychologist who assesses if she has gender dysphoria. Working at a leisurely pace, we follow Tina’s involvement with fellow Black and brown trans activists, her relationship with Jason (Alex Kruz), who enjoys the sex but is embarrassed to be seen together in public, and her attempts to raise funds for her medication.
It seems more than enough to focus on for an 85-minute film, but Alves twins Tina's narrative with that of a local store worker called Chris (Anthony Abdo). He’s an introvert who takes a shine to Tina but is too shy to say. Instead, he’s wrapped up with his bullying, homophobic buddies trying to prove his masculinity while denying his own sexuality. It doesn't take long to see the path Alves is venturing down, and it’s one that is wholly predictable and never fully earned.
Alves took care to include trans people in certain aspects of film’s production and in the cast, which offers authenticity but mixed results in terms of performances (on a side note Michael Madsen also makes a brief and unexpected appearance). Based on what transpires on-screen, this doesn’t seem to include the writing department, as the ending is unnecessarily cruel. Given where you expect things to go it is hardly a surprise, but when you piece together the narrative there are large gaps left unfulfilled, and it instead attempts to plug them with emotional manipulation.
The Garden Left Behind seems to want it both ways and succeeds in achieving neither, in-turn compromising its own message. Regardless of their actions, everyone deserves a sense of understanding in order for them to learn and avoid repeating the cycle, and to protect others from the same. This is being talked around to avoid explicit spoilers, but that is essentially what Alves attempts to do here, except one of the characters is woefully underwritten and undeserving of any empathy, while the other suffers badly as a result. It shows that execution of ideas is everything and despite even the best of intentions, sometimes more harm can be done than good.
The Garden Left Behind is available in virtual US theatres and on VOD from August 28.