For a segment of the population, the fight for civil rights has not ceased. The danger of existing has not abated, abuse and early death a haunting reality. With that danger in mind, a low-angle tracking shot follows a transgender woman slowly walking down the street—distraught. A car with a white male slowly pulls up beside her. So opens Flavio Alves’ compact yet heartbreaking indie drama The Garden Left Behind.
His film follows the life of Tina (Carlie Guevara): a latina trans woman in the process of transitioning. While working as a ride-share driver, Tina lives with her abuela (Miriam Cruz). Who while loving, still uses her granddaughter’s deadname: Antonio, and routinely uses gendered descriptions as well, referring to her as a “handyman.” The Garden Left Behind also marks just Guevara’s second film performance. While her general acting shows greater ease while she’s speaking Spanish as opposed to English, she commands the very real-life emotions of her character. Throughout the film’s 88 minutes, Tina confronts all the grim realities of gender dysphoria and existing as a trans woman in a still prejudiced and violent society.
The men in Tina’s life only vary slightly in accepting her, if they even do at all. There’s her boyfriend Jason (Alex Kruz), who after two years of dating is only now comfortable enough to publicly wine and dine her. He’s still not introduced her to his family, even avoiding his uncle in the park when he’s seen walking there with Tina. The phenomena isn’t at all irregular, unfortunately. Discreet men who enjoy the sexual experience of dating a trans woman are usually afraid to be seen with them because gender as a social construct has been so ingrained in them. These men fear being labelled, “exposed” as something other than masculine and can often violently lash out.
The other man in her life is Chris (Anthony Abdo)—a store clerk at her local mart. Though he hangs with homophobic dude bros as they watch porn, he remains uninterested in their heteronormative desires. Instead, he intently watches Tina, stalking her on Instagram and offering furtive glances when she enters his store. Though he wants to reach out to Tina, the machismo culture he’s surrounded himself with subconsciously holds him back.
Through Tina, the gay Brazilian LGBTQ activist Alves explores the trials trans people face. Tina routinely visits a psychologist, played by Ed Anser. She needs to so he can diagnose her with gender dysphoria—distress caused by the conflict between a person’s physical gender and the one they identify as. Tina can’t begin hormone replacement therapy and further steps for transitioning until she receives his approved diagnosis.
Moreover, Tina also spends much of The Garden Left Behind protesting for trans rights. In the middle of Alves’ film, he places the narrative of Rosie—a transgender woman beaten by cops. The added layer finds roots in a still uneasy relationship between the police and the transgender community. Law enforcement officials routinely target, profile, and harass trans men and women. In 2015, two thirds of trans participants said they were mistreated by police. Tina and her friends: Amanda (Ivana Black), Carol (Tamara M. Williams), and Regina (Kristen Parker Lovell)—take to the streets to protest the injustice endured by Rosie. They’re also given an inspirational speech from an activist named Lily M. Villahermosa (Amanda M. Rodriguez). Refreshingly, Alves doesn’t cast any cis-gendered actors to play these powerful trans characters.
Impressively, The Garden Left Behind also touches upon immigration and the healthcare system. Hormone replacement therapy isn’t cheap, and many healthcare providers still list the necessary treatments as exclusion. The prospects of medical care become bleaker if you have no insurance at all, and if like Tina, you’re an illegal immigrant.
Alves allows these components to intersect, and most importantly normalizes transgender bodies and passions. In one scene, Tina is taking a bath. The camera cuts to close-ups of her legs, never shying away from her body. During one sex scene between Jason and Tina, close-ups are utilized again—portraying a night of passion with the same intimacy as used for any other couple. The director uniquely understands the context of these shots, and the tangible representation they foster. He also knows the fight for acceptance and the dangers that lurk for transgender women go hand-in-hand, which perfectly Guevara actualizes. The struggle and the peril — especially from the unique perspective of a trans woman of color — makes this drama uniquely harrowing, leading to The Garden Left Behind concluding with a poignant and tragic series of events that ultimately bury our hearts as deep as the roots of a wilting flower, cradling us to depths unknown.
A selection of Film Girl Film Festival: 2019