A title card in The Garden Left Behind cites a statistic from LGBT media organisation GLAAD. It states that 2018 was the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the US, with nearly all the victims being transgender women of colour.
Clearly filled with righteous anger about such reports, for his feature debut Brazilian writer-director Flavio Alves decided to focus on the difficulties undocumented immigrants and trans people face in America. Carlie Guevara stars in The Garden Left Behind as Tina, a Mexican trans woman living with her grandmother Eliana (Miriam Cruz) in New York. The movie follows Tina as she struggles to make ends meet as a gypsy cab driver, aims to begin hormone replacement therapy and finds acceptance in the transgender community. In regards the latter, she becomes an outspoken advocate for trans rights after another a brutal beating spurred by transphobia makes the news.
Yet, Tina isn’t the only character the movie follows. The film also cuts away from our heroine to Chris (Anthony Abdo), a young man who works as a grocery store cashier in Tina’s neighbourhood. In scenes which feel reminiscent of those in Mindhunter where we follow the BTK killer in mundane yet simultaneously creepy moments, we see him waste away his days with his homophobic sexist mates while forming a strange obsession with Tina.
We know these two storylines are going to merge eventually, adding further tension to well-observed mostly plotless scenes which drop viewers into Tina, and to a lesser extent, Chris’ daily life. Rather honourably and importantly, The Garden Left Behind depicts how for people like our heroine just getting through the day can be a challenge, a fear constantly looming in regards being undocumented or a victim of transphobia. To Alves and his co-writer John Rotondo’s credit, these scenes of transphobia – aside from maybe the climax – are rarely melodramatic. A lot of the time it’s realistic examples of micro-aggressions – Eliana deadnaming Tina or Tina’s boyfriend Jason (Alex Kruz) being embarrassed introducing her to his colleagues.
Thankfully, Alves and Rotondo find some happiness in the narrative. Michael Madsen radiates warmth in a rather lovely small role as a friend of Tina’s who later gives her a job working as a bartender. Ed Asner does similarly good work as the heroine’s understanding psychologist. Meanwhile, another compelling scene sees Eliana and her granddaughter’s trans friends (the great Tamara M. Williams and Ivana Black) throw Tina a surprise birthday party. By talking to Tina’s friends, we witness Eliana become accepting and supportive of her granddaughter’s wants and desires.
All these positives aside, by The Garden Left Behind’s conclusion, it’s hard not to grow frustrated at how trans narratives depicted on screen always emphasise the negatives associated with the lifestyle as opposed to the positives. Whether it be the terrible The Danish Girl, last year’s middling and misjudged Girl or the masterpiece Laurence Anyways, these films centring on trans women are all tragedies to an extent, rather than uplifting stories of self-fulfilment.
While at this stage the truly ground-breaking trans movie will be the one where joy outweighs suffering, The Garden Left Behind is an undoubtedly well-intentioned, gripping depiction of the trials and tribulations trans women of colour can face in America.