The Garden Left Behind (Flavio Alves, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
Winner of the Audience Award in the “Visions” category at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, The Garden Left Behind, from director Flavio Alves (making his feature debut), tells the story of Tina, a transgender woman in New York City awaiting final test results before her gender-reassignment surgery. The movie follows her day-to-day life as she navigates love, work and her relationship with her grandmother, with whom she shares an apartment. Both immigrants from Mexico, the two share a close bond, even as the older woman remains mystified by her grandchild’s evolving identity (she still calls her “Antonio”). Ostensibly normal as their quotidian activities may be, they are chased by the twin specters of their unofficial resident status in the United States and Tina’s officially unrecognized new self. In other words, The Garden Left Behind is an extraordinarily relevant film to the current moment, while also illustrating universal human values.
Cinematic newcomer Carlie Guevara imbues Tina with an engaging combination of heartfelt emotion and passionate energy. As her evaluating therapist – responsible for deciding the appropriateness of the upcoming procedure – the great Ed Asner (The Gliksmans) seems, at almost 90, a little too old for the part, but is otherwise fine. Michael Madsen (The Hateful Eight) offers solid support as a friendly bartender who helps Tina with a new gig beyond that of limo chauffeur. The rest of the cast, including Anthony Abdo as a very conflicted local store clerk whose own identity issues leave him wracked with confusion, is less well known, though mostly competent, even if the acting is occasionally rough, in places, as is the script when it devolves into unnecessary exposition.
Whatever the occasional flaws of the filmmaking, The Garden Left Behind delivers a powerful rebuke to the forces of hate who reject alternative narratives to the so-called normal. Furthermore, given that what Tina wants is what most of us want – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – what is there to hate, beyond the impossible-to-justify fear of the other? Alves emphasizes her simple, easygoing desires with his laid-back mise-en-scène, making of his first feature a gentle clarion call to accept each and every one of us exactly as we are.