The Garden Left Behind (2019) *** SXSW 2020

July 1st, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Flavio Alves; Cast: Carlie Guevara, Ed Asner, Michael Madsen, Miriam Cruz, Tamara M. Williams, Anthony Abdo, Alex Cruz; USA/Brazil, 88 min.

Brazilian-born first time director/co-writer Flavio Alves, granted asylum for political reasons in the USA, has created a moving but structurally erratic portrait of a Mexican transgender woman, who lives with her grandmother as an undocumented immigrant in New York. Shot elegantly in the Bronx and Brooklyn by DoP Koshi Kiyokawa with support of the local transgender community, The Garden is carried by debutant Carlie Guevara in the central role.

Tina (Guevara) is walking along a deserted street at night when she is accosted by a carload of belligerent men shouting insults. Walking towards the camera, we sense trouble for Tina, but Alves cuts to tell her story in flashback. Tina lives with her grandmother Eliana (Cruz) in a small apartment, making money as a Uber driver. Her gender reassignment has been an expensive process, psychiatrist (Asner of ‘Lou Grant’ fame), supporting her through the different stages of the treatment. Tina has a longstanding boyfriend, Jason (Kruz), who is still ashamed to be seen with her in public, particularly in their favourite bar, tended by Kevin (Madsen). Her best friend Carol (Williams) drags Tina into the local activist scene which becomes the main focus of the feature. Support characters include a strange young man, Chris (Abdo), he seems to be negatively obsessed by Tina, scowling angrily at her during shopping trips to the local supermarket. The day-to-day scenes are strongest, we see Tina buying Eliana a new hoover, and her lovemaking scenes, to which grandma listens attentively. Both Guevara and Cruz give understated, naturalistic performances, newcomer Guevara is particular convincing, looking backwards to a past she hardly remembers, whilst being afraid of the future. Unfortunately, Alves decides on a shock-horror ending, and one which is amply telegraphed at that.

Raising the profile of escalating violence towards the transgender community, features like the The Garden Left Behind are certainly worthwhile, if not vital. In times of unrest,  these vulnerable members of society often suffer disproportionately, along with other minorities, and Alves succeeds by only featuring local members of the community – which should be a given, but is not part of the Hollywood standard. It is therefore disappointing the filmmaker lets everyone down with a melodramatic ending, attempting to tug on heartstrings in a double whammy of “revelation”. Guevara and the transgender community deserve a more subtle approach that feels real in today’s developing crisis. AS

SXSW AUDIENCE AWARD WINNER 2020
     

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