'The Garden Left Behind': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Koshi Kiyokawa
Eloquent and affecting, despite its flaws.

Flavio Alves’ first feature is a timely drama about a Mexican transgender woman in New York.

It’s one thing to decide to make a movie about the struggles of the transgender community and violent attacks on it. But it’s far harder to turn that message into a film as natural and graceful as The Garden Left Behind. Directed by Flavio Alves, a producer making his first feature, this is a clear-eyed, poignant yet unsentimental drama about Tina, a trans woman and undocumented Mexican living in New York. Despite one major narrative flaw, the pic is a moving little indie.

The story starts with Tina (Carlie Guevara) walking toward the camera on a lonely street at night, a look of anguish on her face. A car full of guys passes and as they shout insults at her, the camera closes in on an especially belligerent man, hinting that he might be the cause of some further trauma.

Instead of moving ahead in time, the movie then flashes back and immerses us in Tina’s daily life. With large glasses and unglamorous unisex clothes, she drives a livery car around Queens, saving money to see a doctor and begin gender reassignment. 

As Tina, Guevara sometimes gives stilted line deliveries, but her face is always subtly, immensely expressive. Tina wins our empathy from that first fraught look at the camera, and our engagement with the character builds as we watch her approach the world with quiet determination.

She lives with her grandmother, Eliana, played by Miriam Cruz, whose vivid but understated performance matches Guevara’s, and echoes the tone of the film. Eliana brought Tina to the U.S. from Mexico, where she had a garden she longs to return to. She still calls her grandchild Antonio, but loves her unconditionally. She understands who Tina is, but struggles to understand why. The small family of two is a microcosm of love and worry.   

Two well-known actors take on brief roles. Ed Asner is the psychologist who must decide whether Tina can move ahead to transition. Michael Madsen has an even smaller role as a bartender who knows Tina and her boyfriend as regulars. We soon see that Tina is desperately in love with a man she should walk away from. After two years, he is still embarrassed to be seen with her  in public. The pic effectively captures the pain of being in a bad affair.

All the transgender characters are, like Tina, played by trans actors, and they bring a rich authenticity to even small roles. Tamara M. Williams is a force as Tina’s best friend, Carol, who guides her through the trans world with the help of a group of other trans women. When one of their friends is beaten by police, Carol organizes marches and nudges Tina to become an activist. Those scenes work fine, but the more intimate and original use of the group is apparent when they join Eliana at the apartment for a surprise birthday dinner to celebrate Tina’s 30th birthday, revealing how important their warmth and support are.

The movie is powerful and intimate as long as it shares Tina’s point of view, which is much of the time. But it goes seriously astray when it leaves her to focus on the angry man we saw in the opening close-up. Chris (Anthony Abdo) works at a local bodega, and scowls angrily at Tina whenever she stops in. Although we are clearly meant to see him as a threat from the start, the heavy-handed telegraphing throughout is so clumsy that it jars the film whenever he turns up. We surmise that he is angry because he is also attracted to Tina, but the pic isn’t interested in his reasons. An over-the-top villain straight out of melodrama, Chris is a symbol of hatred rather than a hateful person.

There are other, smaller flaws that jolt us out of the film’s reality. Another easy-to-foresee moment of melodrama arrives near the end when Eliana uses the name Tina. Those problems seem unnecessary, when a bit of ruthless editing would have helped.

The pic’s world is otherwise totally believable. Shot on locations in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, it has sharp cinematography by Koshi Kiyokawa that fills the screen with a sense of neighborhood life while keeping our attention on the characters.

The story takes an unexpected turn at the end. The look we first see on Tina’s face is not entirely the result of the violence we assume has caused it, but comes from another devastating reason, one so out-of-nowhere that the film barely gets away with it.

But the flaws in The Garden Left Behind should not prevent anyone from appreciating the rich, compassionate story Alves has brought to the screen with such assurance, or the heroine Guevara has brought to life with such realism.

Production companies: Autonomous Pictures, Queens Pictures
Cast: Carlie Guevara, Michael Madsen, Ed Asner, Miriam Cruz, Danny Flaherty, Anthony Abdo, Alex Kruz, Tamara M. Williams
Director: Flavio Alves
Screenwriters: John Rotondo, Flavio Alves
Producer: Roy Wol
Director of photography: Koshi Kiyokawa
Production designer: Kimberly Matela
Costume designer: Steve Iskowitz
Editors: Alex Lora, Frank Dale Arroyo
Music: Robert Pycior
Casting: Caroline Sinclair
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Visions)

88 minutes