The Garden Left Behind is a stellar feature-length debut for director Flavio Alves, who funded the production largely through donations on eBay. It tells the story of Tina (Carlie Guevara), a Mexican transgender woman living undocumented in New York City with her grandmother.
Alves took great lengths to research the lived experience of the immigrant transgender community in New York City, and cast only transgender actors in transgender roles. It’s the kind of social justice film that ends how you expect it to, on a black screen with white font explaining how it reflects disturbing realities of which you may not have previously been aware. That doesn’t matter. Although Garden follows traditional message-movie cues, it spends most of its runtime painting a vivid, positive portrait of a community under-represented in films and culture at large. It is uplifting and heartbreaking in equal measure.
Guevara is a standout as Tina, holding the entire film on her very capable shoulders. Tina’s experiences at the very bottom rung of the ladder sting socially; every climb up toward being the person she knows she can be is fraught with setbacks, both personal and structural. A lousy boyfriend, difficulty getting work, expensive medical treatments — it’s a difficult world. But Alves doesn’t make Garden a litany of depressing setbacks. He instead populates Tina’s life with characters who love her, even if some of them do not understand her journey. Key here is her grandmother Eliana (Miriam Cruz), who runs the household while Tina works to support it. Eliana never openly objects to her granddaughter’s choices, but continues to call her Antonio. It stings. Eliana isn’t disapproving of Tina so much as she simply does not understand, and she has her own journey in the film — intertwined with Tina’s to form a dual emotional core.
Carlie has a group of friends who are more actively involved in the transgender-rights community and encourage her to get do the same, and their relationships are a narrative counterweight for the trials and tribulations that otherwise populate Garden’s running time — which makes its final segments land even harder before that black text-filled screen fades in before the credits. There’s a thrill to seeing a filmmaker create a movie that feels educational, cast entirely with members of the communities it represents while maintaining a strong, empathetic storyline that covers a lot of factual and emotional ground in a very, very short amount of time (less than 90 minutes). Had Alves gone longer, it would have been welcome, if only to stave off the seemingly inevitable. And if that last sequence had been cut? Maybe a fade to black on the emotional high points to stave off the tragedy? What a happy movie it would have been, but far less honest.
Garden has something to say, and it wants the audience to feel every single word. It succeeds.
The Garden Left Behind is a Narrative Feature Finalist at the 2019 Heartland Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased here.
5:30 p.m., Friday, Oct 11 – DeBoest Lecture Hall at Newfields
3 p.m., Sunday, Oct 13 – DeBoest Lecture Hall at Newfields
7:40 p.m., Friday, Oct 18 – AMC Castleton Square Theater 11
7:40 p.m., Saturday, Oct 19 – AMC Castleton Square Theater 11