Review: ‘The Garden Left Behind,’ starring Carlie Guevara, Michael Madsen, Ed Asner, Danny Flaherty, Alex Kruz, Tamara Williams and Miriam Cruz

September 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Carlie Guevara in “The Garden Left Behind” (Photo courtesy of Uncork’d Entertainment and Dark Star Pictures)

“The Garden Left Behind”

Directed by Flavio Alves

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “The Garden Left Behind” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Latinos, African Americas, white people and Asians) of transgender and cisgender people representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young transgender woman who is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico experiences hateful discrimination and personal struggles during her quest to get medical treatment for her transition.

Culture Audience: “The Garden Left Behind” will mostly appeal to people interested in transgender female issues that are portrayed realistically in a scripted movie. 

Miriam Cruz in “The Garden Left Behind” (Photo courtesy of Uncork’d Entertainment and Dark Star Pictures)

The struggles of undocumented immigrants in America are rarely told in movies from the perspective of a transgender woman, but the drama “The Garden Left Behind” admirably and authentically gives a voice to this often-overlooked community. Directed by Flavio Alves (who co-wrote the screenplay with John Rotondo), “The Garden Left Behind” is anchored by an impressive performance by Carlie Guevara, who makes her feature-film debut in the movie.

Alves and Rotondo are cisgender men, so they did a lot of research before making “The Garden Left Behind,” a movie that was partially crowdfunded through eBay. Alves says in comments that are in the movie’s production notes: “In order to do the story justice, we met with more than 30 trans-led organizations, with hopes of including their concerns about the fictional story we were building. John and I wrote this story because we care deeply about the transgender community, and shortly after starting our research, we understood that it would require us to do a lot more homework in order to develop authentic characters.”

The filmmakers also made the decision to casting only transgender people in the transgender roles. And they had several transgender people in the behind-the scenes film crew. According to what Alves says in the movie’s production notes: “We were lucky enough to have the Trans Filmmakers Project join the production team of our film, providing us with a large pool of transgender representation behind the camera, so that they could gain experience making media, that will eventually help them to develop stories of their own. In addition to TFP, a long list of other fantastic organizations helped support the film, including GLAAD, who took us under their wing and provided special trainings for our crew of actors, advocates, and allies.”

It’s important to mention all of this information about the movie because all of that authenticity shows in “The Garden Left Behind,” which takes viewers on an emotionally powerful journey of one woman’s experiences in trying to overcome obstacles and discrimination from bigots who want to mistreat transgender people as outcasts. And the filmmakers should be commended for having real transgender representation on screen and off screen for the movie, because many movies about transgender people still don’t cast transgender people in transgender roles, and they shut out transgender people from being on the film crew.

The story of “The Garden Left Behind” takes an intimate look into a few months in the life of Tina Carerra (played by Guevara), a vibrant transgender woman in her early 20s whose goal is to make a complete medical transition into the female gender. She lives with her loving grandmother Eliana (played by Miriam Cruz) in New York City’s Bronx borough, and Tina is the one who’s responsible for earning the household income. Tina (whose birth name is Antonio) has been living in the United States with her grandmother (who only speaks Spanish and is also undocumented) since Tina was 5 years old. Tina’s parents are not mentioned or seen in the movie.

The obstacles to Tina’s life goal are very daunting: Tina is barely able to pay the household bills on her salary as a rideshare diver. As an undocumented immigrant without a college education, her career options are also limited. And she’s too proud to ask for help from people she knows, including her boyfriend Jason (played by Alex Kruz), an older businessman whom she’s been dating for the past two years.

Tina and Jason’s relationship is a lot like how romances are between trans women and straight men: The men often want to keep the relationship as secret as possible. This secrecy is starting to irritate Tina, but Jason is taking small steps toward making their relationship more public when he takes Tina out to dinner for the first time. However, it bothers Tina that Jason, who works in a corporate office job, still won’t introduce her to his family and friends.

Eliana is aware that Tina has been dating Jason, who sometimes comes over to the apartment for late-night trysts with Tina, but Tina hasn’t introduced Jason to Eliana, and it’s implied that Eliana doesn’t even know his name. The morning after one of these trysts, Eliana tells her that Jason is welcome to sleep over on the couch, but Tina brushes off the subject of her love life in a defensive way. Eliana sheepishly responds by saying that she won’t try to pry in Tina’s personal life. Tina also doesn’t know how to talk to her grandmother about her goal to transition into a fully biological female.

However, Tina gets emotional support about the transition from her transgender female friends. They include Tina’s outspoken and sassy best friend Carol (played by Tamara Williams), plus Amanda (played by Ivana Black) and Briana (played by Lea Nyeli). Carol is the one who recommended that Tina see a doctor in the city who has worked with transgender people for years and is someone who can sign off on the psychiatric clearance that Tina needs to be eligible for her medical transition.

Tina has already told Dr. Cleary (played by Ed Asner) about her family situation by mentioning that her grandmother is “the only family I have. We’re very close. Let’s just say she has my back.” During the therapy sessions, Tina also says that her grandmother often talks about certain fond memories that she has of Mexico, such as the food, their former family home and the garden that was at the home. The stories of the garden are so influential to Tina that she has become an avid gardener in a small lot in the Bronx.

Tina confides in Carol that Dr. Cleary is sometimes frustrating because he keeps asking the same questions. But in the therapy sessions, it’s shown that Dr. Cleary keeps asking the same questions because Tina is reluctant to answer the questions clearly. She either won’t answer or gives vague answers that are not enough for Dr. Cleary to give a full evaluation.

“We’re on the same team,” Dr. Cleary tells Tina, “but I need to know more so I can evaluate you.” One of the questions that Tina seems to have trouble answering is: “Why are you here?” It’s another question that Dr. Cleary asks Tina that finally breaks the ice and gets them to open up to each other: “Are you happy?”

Tina asks Dr. Cleary what the definition of happy is and asks him to tell her what makes him happy. He says that what makes him happy is waking up to his wife, seeing his children and grandchildren succeed, and doing his job. After Dr. Cleary shows himself in a more human light, it improves Tina’s ability to have candid conversations with him. Dr. Cleary eventually diagnoses Tina with having gender dysphoria, which is the diagnosis she needs to start getting medical treatment for her transition.

But Tina experiences major obstacles because she doesn’t have health insurance and she can’t afford the out-of-pocket costs that she would have to pay to continue the medical treatment. She also begins breathing and voice-exercise therapy to have a more feminine-sounding voice. In order to pay for some to these costs, Tina makes a decision to sell her car, which means she can no longer be a rideshare driver.

Luckily, she finds another job as a bartender at a local bar where she and Jason have been customers. Tina and Jason have had a friendly relationship with the bar’s owner/manager Kevin (played by Michael Madsen), who hires Tina on the spot when he sees that she has good bartending skills. Because she’s an undocumented immigrant, Tina ends up paying for a fake resident alien card (or green card) so that she can work at the bar.

Meanwhile, Tina has a passing but polite acquaintance with a young man in his late teens named Chris (played by Anthony Abdo), whom Tina encounters sometimes while he’s working at his cashier job at a local convenience store where she’s a regular customer. Chris is very quiet and shy, but he hangs out with a trio of rowdy, homophobic teenagers who are his teammates on a local baseball team.

Chris’ bigoted pals are group leader Oscar (played by Danny Flaherty), Adrien (Sidiki Fofana) and Leo (played by Will Kirsanda), who have no qualms about showing how much they hate anything to do with the LGBTQ community. On the night that Tina and Jason have their first dinner together at a restaurant, they are walking and cuddling on the street after they leave the restaurant. Oscar, Adrien and Leo happen on the same street, and when they see Tina and Jason together, the troublemaking trio starts yelling transphobic insults. The harassment brings Tina to tears, but Jason comforts her with a passionate kiss before they go into his place.

Unfortunately, it won’t be the last time that Tina and other people in her transgender community are the targets of hate. Shortly after Tina experiences this harassment, Carol’s close friend Rosie gets beaten up by police officers for being transgender, but the cops haven’t been held accountable. This hate crime sparks Carol to organize Trans Lives Matter protests, and Tina becomes part of the movement too. The protests and media coverage set off a chain of events that have profound effects on Tina’s life in ways that are both inspiring and horrifying.

“The Garden Left Behind” is not always an easy film to watch if people aren’t prepared to see the hatred and inhumane way that other human beings are mistreated in life. But it’s a harsh reality that is experienced by many transgender people who are often overlooked and treated as undeserving as the same rights as everyone else. The movie shows Tina’s political awakening when she begins to understand that by staying silent and doing nothing, she is indirectly helping the bigotry and hate crimes to thrive.

Although a lot of people can’t or won’t sympathize with Tina being an undocumented immigrant, her story is one shared by millions of undocumented people who came to the U.S. as children, through no choice of their own, because they were brought by adults who were also undocumented immigrants. Tina, like most of these Dreamers, is not a “charity case” who doesn’t want to work. She wants to be a productive member of society, but she also has the additional and costly challenge that cisgender people do not have: transitioning into the gender she should have had when she was born.

Perhaps by coincidence, “The Garden Left Behind” was released the same week as filmmaker/actress Isabel Sandoval’s dramatic movie “Lingua Franca,” which is also about a transgender woman who’s an undocumented immigrant in New York City. Whereas Sandoval’s character in “Lingua Franca” is at a stage in her life where she’s ready to get married, Tina has barely begun her adult life and is still learning about what it’s like to try to find a life partner as a transgender woman.

Although what ultimately ends up happening to Tina is easy to predict, that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of the story. The way that Alves skillfully crafts the story shows that Tina, more often than not, lives a life that is very much like other young people who are financially struggling and worried about their futures. She just happens to be transgender and an undocumented Mexican immigrant, and therefore she has to deal with all the discrimination that comes with being in these identity groups. “The Garden Left Behind” should be essential viewing for people who want to see what it’s like for a transgender woman to find her voice and stand up for who she is, even if other people want to punish her for it.

Uncork’d Entertainment and Dark Star Pictures released “The Garden Left Behind” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on August 28, 2020. The movie’s VOD release date is September 8, 2020.