In recent years, films such as Sebastián Lelio’s Oscar-winning 2017 “A Fantastic Woman,” as well as Sean Baker’s “Tangerine,” from 2015, have gone a long way in raising the bar when it comes to intelligent and powerful depictions of trans people on screen. You can also add “The Garden Left Behind” (Queens Pictures/Autonomous Pictures), from gay filmmaker Flavio Alves, to that list.
Additionally, the on-demand release of the award-winning “The Garden Left Behind” couldn’t be better timed in terms of awareness. With the increasing number of deadly hate crimes perpetrated against members of the trans community making the news on a daily basis, as well as George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police officers still fresh as pepper spray in our minds, we are living in a virtual powder keg.
The garden in the title of “The Garden Left Behind” is the one in Mexico that undocumented Tina (trans actress Carlie Guevara), who is in the process of her transition, and her abuela Eliana (Miriam Cruz), left behind when they arrived in New York when Tina was only five years old. Eliana, who only speaks Spanish, and still mainly refers to Tina by her dead name (Antonio), never hesitates to tell her beloved grandchild how tranquilo their lives would be if they returned to Mexico.
Tina, on the other hand, is determined to stay. She has begun her transition, meeting regularly with therapist Dr. Cleary (Ed Asner), even though she is growing impatient with the system. She has a loving and supportive circle of trans friends, including Carol (Tamara M. Williams) and Amanda (Ivana Black). Her boyfriend Jason (Alex Kruz) has started to expand their relationship to include dinner dates and such. She is also making a meager living as a livery driver and making every effort to maintain a positive outlook. When an opportunity to make a little more money for her costly procedure arises, tending bar at her and Jason’s friend Kevin’s (Michael Madsen) tavern, she jumps at it.
Nevertheless, there are forces working against her. Rosie, a friend from Tina’s social circle is assaulted by a cop and is hospitalized, leading to Tina becoming a visible activist. Neighborhood bodega cashier Chris (Anthony Abdo) becomes obsessed with Tina. Chris’ neighborhood bully pack taunts her. Jason grows increasingly unable to hide his discomfort with Tina’s transition. A blood test necessary to move forward with the process provides even more bad news for her.
In the midst of all the trauma, there are also incredible moments of human connection. One scene especially, when Eliana throws Tina a surprise 30th birthday party to which she has invited Tina’s closest friend, stands out the most. Eliana, an extremely religious woman who insists that they say grace before eating the birthday meal, takes Amanda aside and asks thoughtful and concerned questions about what her grandchild is going through and why she’s doing it.
Viewers should also be prepared for the startling and devastating turn that “The Garden Left Behind” takes as it nears the conclusion. Alves, who dedicates the film “to the memory of all transgender men and women whose lives were lost at the hand of violence and hatred,” has made a movie essential for viewing during Pride month and throughout the year.