Filmmaker Flavio Alves gives us a unique perspective with transgender drama.
Viewers enchanted by the Oscar-winning “A Fantastic Woman” should take a look at “The Garden Left Behind.” Co-writer and director Flavio Alves explores the struggles of Tina (Carlie Guevara), as she finds her identity and battles the pressures associated with undocumented status. What’s different about this transgender story is the interplay between a psychiatrist named Dr. Cleary (Edward Asner) and Tina. I’m not sure that I’ve seen this conversation captured in a narrative film before, and the nature of the doctor/patient discussions are revealing of society’s on-going problem with gender dystopia.
We meet Tina as she drives her cab, a large black sedan, through the streets of New York City. She’s appears to be a happy and thoughtful young person—attentive and curious, as she navigates without issue. But later, sitting on the hood of her car and silently eating her lunch between stops, we can tell that something is bothering her. These low-key, contemplative moments convey longing for something more than she has and more than she currently is.
In a small, cozy apartment, Tina lives with her doting grandmother, Eliana (a very good Miriam Cruz). While it is hard to tell, Tina’s biological gender is that of a male, although she presents herself as a female. Her boyfriend, Jason (Alex Kruz), enjoys having fun behind closed doors with Tina, but he is uncomfortable going out in public with her. This awkward relationship might not have a future.
Tina is in the process of transitioning from male to female. And to do this, she has to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria. Through a series of doctor visits, we learn that her transition depends on the opinion of Dr. Cleary. And Tina finds this laughable at first. After all, how can a straight, old, white man make such a weighty decision? To further frustrate her, Cleary isn’t one to rubber stamp things; he asks questions, lots of them, and the answers are telling.
Well shot and acted, “The Garden Left Behind” features a fine lead performance introducing us to a Guevara, in her feature debut. The mature nature of the role, gives Guevara a chance to shine. She’s a really likable, subdued scene presence, giving us a character who hides behind thick-framed glasses, but whose small expressions let us into her predicament. The scenes between Tina and Eliana are really wonderful, as the two converse in Spanish about mundane topics, like “Wheel of Fortune” or the operation of a modern vacuum cleaner. But as they laugh and study one another, they are always avoiding the elephant in the room—whether it be their immigration status or Tina’s sexual identity. And these two actors nail a familial relationship.
Alves, who creatively funded part of this production by selling donated items on eBay, assembles a very interesting cast. Asner is a good choice for Dr. Cleary. It’s important that a movie like this show the broad support for the trans community, as in one scene, the aged but experienced Cleary tells Tina what makes him happy. His happiness, while ordinary in a traditional way, mirrors Tina’s inner desires, because we all have common wants and needs underneath—chief of which is being able to be ourselves. And by casting the veteran Asner, Alves subtly tells us that gender dysphoria is not new.
Michael Madsen shows up as a kind bar owner named Kevin, who befriends Tina. Kevin looks at Tina with that Madsen tilt and wry semi-smile, but this is not the brutal, sarcastic side of the actor, but he delivers a brotherly or fatherly expression, as if to say, “it’s okay to be yourself here in my place of business.” He casually touches her shoulder, not in a way that is meant to harass, but in kindness, I think. Like so much in “Garden,” Madsen’s performance is subtle and nuanced without becoming too obvious and derivative.
A revealing look at transgender issues facing families today, “The Garden Left Behind” is another film that helps us understand.