The Garden Left Behind

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Garden Left Behind
"With beautifully drawn relationships and a fine central performance, The Garden Left Behind takes frequently politicised subject matter and reminds us of the human side of it."

Introducing the fact that a character is transgender can be a difficult thing to do in a film without overemphasising the point and leading viewers to think that it's all that person is. Flavio Alves's handles it so deftly in the opening scenes of this film that viewers can thereafter be confident that he knows what he's doing. Tina (Carlie Guevara) is waking up in her room, hair awry, fumbling for her clothes and her glasses. "Antonio!" her grandmother (Miriam Cruz) calls to her, persistently. Something is out of place here but it's plainly not Tina herself.

The difference of perspective between these two central characters is not used to generate tension but to underscore the love that they feel for each other. We watch as they patiently work around one another, both physically and metaphorically, managing household chores and their relationship. This is a family that has experienced more than one kind of transition, moving from Mexico when Tina was just five. Her grandmother longs to go back but it has become the focus of gentle humour between them. She knows that Tina doesn't want to, and what she wants most in the world is for Tina to have a good life.

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The central story here has been told many times but Alves does something different with it. Tina is thinking about going through a medical transition process. The thing is, although she likes the idea of the end result, she's nervous. In a world where any sign of nerves about this process is often taken as a warning sign that it would be a catastrophic thing to do, it's a difficult subject to broach, both for Tina (who is already unhappy about the requirement that she defend her identity to a psychologist) and for a film. Alves gently explores the reality that even if one really wants treatment, things like getting blood taken can be stressful. He also explores Tina's discomfort with the idea that she ought to change her body, something that forces her to confront her dissatisfaction with the way it is to begin with and creates tension with long term boyfriend Jason (Alex Kruz).

The film also looks at issues around the recent surge in violence against trans women - especially trans women of colour - in the US, with the shy Tina gradually becoming politicised as friends explain why collective action is vital to changing the culture that enables this. Although it's difficult to portray people campaigning without at times coming across as didactic, this aspect of the film is balanced by moving scenes focused directly on the impact of such violence. Alves also shows an acute understanding of the way it impacts wider society. Male characters in the film seem constantly preoccupied with asserting and shoring up their masculine identity. Running parallel to Tina's story is that of local shopkeeper Chris (Anthony Abdo), who seems fixated on her in a way that combines elements of lust, hostility, sympathy and envy. Living in a world where any variation from carefully policed norms attracts homophobic abuse, he seems tragically unable to come terms with himself.

In fact, the only characters who seem at all sure of themselves here are the older ones. There's a nice turn from Michael Madsen as a local var owner, and Cruz's performance is a delight throughout. it's rare to see trans characters portrayed as part of wider communities like this. Alves and John Rotondo's layered script presents a slice of New York Life which is always contrasted with the unseen, Utopian Mexico yet has plenty of richness of its own. Subtle camerawork in scenes where Tina interacts with strangers serve as a reminder that it's a dangerous place for a woman like her, yet it's also somewhere she can feel alive.

With beautifully drawn relationships and a fine central performance, The Garden Left Behind takes frequently politicised subject matter and reminds us of the human side of it. It's as fresh and as messy as real life and, though bittersweet, is likely to receive a warm welcome from audiences.

Reviewed on: 30 Jul 2019
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The Garden Left Behind packshot
A story about the relationship between a young trans woman and her grandmother as they navigate transition and struggle to build a life for themselves as undocumented immigrants in New York City.

Director: Flavio Alves

Writer: Flavio Alves, John Rotondo

Starring: Michael Madsen, Edward Asner, Carlie Guevara

Year: 2019

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: US


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