From the Archives: The Garden Left Behind gets to the emotional core of trans issues

From the Archives: The Garden Left Behind gets to the emotional core of trans issues

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

To watch The Garden Left Behind is to experience a few days in the life of Tina Carrera, a Mexican immigrant taxi driver living with her grandmother in New York City in the days before her 30th birthday. Tina, formerly Antonio, is in the process of being approved for gender confirmation therapy, with hopes of ultimately transitioning. Her hopes are not necessarily high, and she has little patience for the barrage of questions her psychiatrist unfurls while assessing her mental state, but she moves forward nonetheless, confident that it is both her duty and her right to live in a body that matches her identity. Now if only she could get the rest of the world to catch up with her on that front.

I know what you’re thinking: “Is this one of those movies with such a harsh, hot button lesson that it becomes more of a TED talk than a cinematic narrative?” Well, don’t you worry, because The Garden Left Behind puts forth its urgent themes by using cinematic language rather than preachy didactics, and it does so by reaching into the community from which its story is drawn, showing the real boots-on-the-ground activism being led by transgender people, immigrants, and allies, and using it to color the story of a life that, although uncommonly considered in mainstream thought, is one lived by very real, and very normal people. People who, just like anyone else, just want to exist freely.


In her day to day life, Tina (Carlie Guevara) appears to have it together just as much as any other twenty-something New Yorker. She has a job, a group of friends, and a generally sunny outlook. She’s a bit meek, but quite polite, and as indicated by an early scene where she gifts her grandmother a new vacuum cleaner, she’s very interested in making others happy. The relationship she has with her grandmother Eliana (Miriam Cruz) is just lovely, and despite her grandmother’s passive, old school insistence on referring to Tina as Antonio while using male pronouns, there’s no indication of anything but love between the two. If this bothers Tina, she doesn’t show it. Then again, Tina isn’t the type to make waves, because all she really wants to do is just be like any other woman.

Yet in a world that is still struggling to move away from a strict gender binary, the seemingly insignificant ways that Tina‘s mere existence is resisted begin to pile up. Her boyfriend Jason (Alex Kruz) is happy to date her in private, but shows reticence in making their relationship public. The young man at the bodega to whom Tina is always polite (and who, in an adjacent storyline, struggles to reconcile the clear attraction he has for her) is quite dismissive. Employment opportunities are scant given the one-two-three punch of being an undocumented immigrant, a person of color, and a trans woman. With New York being a very expensive place to live, and her grandmother being well beyond an age where she can live independently, it’s up to Tina to be the breadwinner. With the added expense of the many steps required to even begin transitioning, let alone see it through to completion, she’s feeling trapped.

Some solace is found with her friends group, consisting of other trans people (who, like Tina, are played by real-life trans performers), who share in her struggle. Tina’s friends are considerably more outspoken than she is, but before long they have her joining in on their activism. Their collective is currently protesting a violent act committed against a trans woman by a duo of bigoted cops. The heightened profile granted by her participation does indeed make Tina nervous, but it also gives her a sense of community.


Where The Garden Left Behind succeeds mostly is in validating the idea that lives such as Tina’s are pushed to the fringe for no logical reason. She’s as normal as anyone else, with as much a right to live, love, and succeed as anyone else. It also very clearly drives home the point that for some communities, just existing is a very dangerous thing. Although writer/director Flavio Alves has built a narrative that is imbued with more joy than similarly minded films typically feature, there is a sense of doom that surrounds our protagonist. It’s a doom that she is forced to live with on the regular. A mid-movie scene in which Tina is approached by a man seeking to buy her car is one that masterfully plays with our preconceptions. By this point in the film, we in the audience have learned to be fearful and cautious of the sudden appearance of this stranger. As it turns out, it’s as innocent of an interaction as can be, but for Tina and others like her, the assumption of safety is a privilege she just doesn’t have. By exploiting this feeling of safety, The Garden Left Behind is the type of film that forces the audience to feel, rather than just demanding that they should.

At the same time, we see multiple instances where Tina is offered kindnesses from friends and acquaintances that the more privileged amongst viewers would typically regard as commonplace, but in Tina’s world, these small kindnesses can be life changing. As such, it’s easy to emerge from the film feeling generous — feeling like any opportunity to offer a helping hand or a kind word, no matter how small, is an opportunity worth taking.

Some may have trouble with the film’s conclusion, and I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t quite on board with it in the moment, but in the days since taking it in, I’ve come around on it quite a bit. While I initially found the ending to be a touch exploitative, I’ve grown to regard it instead as provocative. In a world where basic human rights and freedoms are not universally granted, provocation is a valuable tool.

The Garden Left Behind is coming soon.

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