Director Flavio Alves’ art house drama is one of the most important indie films released in 2019. It’s a movie about the LGBTQ community and how much battles are left within the community. Especially in a world where it’s become even more dangerous than ever for the transgender community to simply function. Although imperfect, “The Garden Left Behind” is an award winning drama that is about as relevant and engaging a statement about the trans community as Sean Baker’s 2015 film “Tangerine.”
Set in modern New York, we follow undocumented Mexican immigrant and transgender Tina, a young cab driver who lives alone with her abuela. As she struggles whether she wants to complete her transition, she’s encouraged by her abuela to move back to Mexico with her. But as Tina finds a cause to fight for after the murder of a transgender woman in the neighborhood, she comes to terms with her final decision. All the while a young bodega worker is struggling to find a place among his homophobic clique of friends.
“The Garden Left Behind” is an instantly engaging and engrossing drama. It’s a stark statement about a world where the LGBTQ community has made strides, but still faces so many obstacles. The personal journey of Tina unfolds among the volatile political climate where transgender women face a higher mortality rate than ever thanks to suicide and homicides. Tina isn’t quite sure if she wants to complete her transition, but it’s never quite indicated if she’s just scared of completing her transformation, or if she’s merely folding under the pressure of an increasingly hostile environment. Tina can only really find peace among her grandmother who subconsciously hasn’t fully accepted her change, and persists in inadvertently referring to her as Antonio.
Alves thankfully doesn’t offer a Hollywoodized portrait of the transgender community struggle, casting actual transgender individuals in the crucial roles. Star Carlie Guevera is especially very good as the central character Tina, a person who grasps with her own gender identity and sexuality as she views the world she belongs to, and the world of tradition that her grandmother views as some escape from the violence and harrowing danger Tina endures day in and day out. Guevera steals the movie and garners genuine chemistry with co-star Miriam Cruz, whose depiction of her loving grandmother looking for a way to give Tina new opportunities is touching and heartbreaking.
If there’s any consolation, it’s the under developed sub-plot with Jason (Alex Kruz), whose intentions remain ambiguous even in the very end. The writers never develop the character too much, and his whole story arc feels under developed in the end. Sadly, I have to admit the Jason sub-plot is the film’s weak link. My main gripe is the climax, which felt just unnecessarily cruel to make the statement that it could have made without the turn of events that unfold. In either case, while imperfect “The Garden Left Behind” is a great drama with fantastic performances and a narrative that will provoke important conversations.