Change is hard. Undergoing something like a gender operation would seem to take the maximum amount of courage someone could have. It requires so much of the individual. It is enough to have the courage to confront the very real fear of change, of its consequences, but it’s rarely just that simple. Tina (Carlie Guevara) faces several radical challenges. She’s an undocumented Mexican now living in New York and seeking a gender operation. It is hard enough to have one of those challenges. Her journey, complimented by a wonderfully represented Transgender cast, allows new voices to be heard, and they echo through a trying plot and a hard ending.
The best job we can do is to listen. As allies, we can tend to talk a lot, to be so vocal in our support, we have drowned out the actual voice of the cause. Films like The Garden Left Behind are important in their representation alone. Tina and her friends have an easy trans camaraderie that’s truly touching in how it’s captured. It shows no difference from a regular life. She lives normally and happens to be both trans and undocumented. It would make some people mad and that’s a terrible shame. The film will not convince them otherwise. It will be taken only by an agreeable audience. That means it gets to spend due time on social advocacy, the circle of friends getting out and picketing their beliefs. A not subtle reminder in the age of the internet, if you’re not getting out and doing something about your politics, how closely do you hold and value those beliefs?
There is no shame in The Garden Left Behind’s subject. The core problem is in its central performance. Carlie Guevara gives incredibly off-kilter line readings. Her co-subjects react like they are bad readings. Some of them are painful to watch. Then there’s this boy Chris (Anthony Abdo), who is the personification of the hate she’d receive. Their relationship doesn’t make a lot of sense and its development is more shocking than withholding genuine truths. The film is benefitted by minor performances – let’s call them cameos – by Ed Asner as Tina’s grandfatherly psychologist and Michael Madsen as a bartender willing to give Tina some work. The film’s best realized when it’s Tina and her grandmother – who idyllically dreams of their old Mexico and would be such a supportive sweetheart if she’d stop deadnaming Tina.
At a loss for profundity, The Garden Left Behind makes sweeping gestures toward shock value. The ending may really offend its audience, not that it could not be achieved with a sharper screenplay. It is simply unearned here and does not reflect the same ideas and beliefs as the rest of the film. We feel deeply through Tina’s experience how damn near impossible it is to engage with the process of operations. How an undocumented cab driver would just pay their way without insurance, giving their will and lives totally just to become who they really are. That sacrifice is admirable, and the film gets by largely out of the necessity of it’s middle act messaging. There are crucial and inspiring things about it, yes, and when those land with the target audience, the following act will likely knock the air and inspiration right out of them. The Garden Left Behind is a small success for debut director Flavio Alves (a producer, who directs like one) with good representation left wanting a more connective lead role and screenplay.