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.

Review: ‘2 Graves in the Desert,’ starring Michael Madsen, William Baldwin, Cassie Howarth and Ivan Gonzalez

March 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

William Baldwin and Michael Madsen in “2 Graves in the Desert” (Photo courtesy of 4Digital Media)

“2 Graves in the Desert”

Directed by Benjamin Goalabré

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Southwest region of the United States (including Nevada and Arizona), “2 Graves in the Desert” is a drama/crime thriller with an almost-all white cast of characters representing the criminal underworld.

Culture Clash:  Two thugs have kidnapped two other people who operate on the wrong side of the law.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal primarily to people who like pulp B-movies, but there are numerous other films that are much better than this unimaginative drivel.

Cassie Howarth and Ivan Gonzalez in “2 Graves in the Desert” (Photo courtesy of 4Digital Media)

“2 Graves in the Desert” is a poorly written, sloppily directed movie that tries very hard to be like an early Quentin Tarantino film, even down to casting actor Michael Madsen, who co-starred in “Reservoir Dogs,” writer/director Tarantino’s 1992 feature film debut. But whereas Tarantino films are known for their memorable characters and unique dialogue, the opposite can be said of director Benjamin Goalabré’s “2 Graves in the Desert,” which falls into the “generic and forgettable” category of bad movies.

The movie essentially revolves around four characters and this plot: Two sleazy brothers—alpha-male Mario (played by William Baldwin) and his follower brother Vince (played by Madsen)—have beaten up and kidnapped a drug dealer named Eric (played by Ivan Gonzalez) and a high-priced hooker named Blake (played by Cassie Howarth) and dumped them in the back of a flatbed truck that the two brothers drive out to the desert. During the course of the movie, viewers find out why these two people were kidnapped. It’s a journey that’s more excruciating to watch because of the terrible dialogue and substandard acting rather than whatever brutalities are being portrayed on screen.

At the beginning of the film, Mario and Vince are out in the desert talking about James Cameron’s “Titanic” movie (of all things), while Mario urinates on some cactus. Mario is convinced that black people were among the stars in the movie and that everyone died on the Titanic. Mario thinks Samuel L. Jackson must’ve been in the movie since Jackson is an African American actor who’s been in a lot of blockbuster movies. (This mention of Jackson is another nod to Tarantino, since Jackson has been in several Tarantino films too.)

Vince tells Mario that all the stars of “Titanic” were actually white, and there were survivors in the story. Vince is right, of course, but Mario acts like that’s not possible, which is an indication of how Mario is arrogant and not as smart as he thinks he is. This pop-culture debate in “2 Graves in the Desert” is very Tarantino-esque, but there’s nothing funny or clever about it. This scene only serves the purpose to set up the flashback to the night before (what happened night before is the majority of the movie), so that the opening scene can be repeated again when the movie catches up to that part of the story.

Viewers don’t see how Eric and Blake were kidnapped, but it’s shown that it happened in Las Vegas and the truck is now heading somewhere else. The first time Eric and Blake are seen on screen is when they’re in the back of the truck, with bloody gashes on their heads, duct tape over their mouths, and wrapped thoroughly in cocoons made out of of cellophane. Eric manages to bite off the duct tape from his mouth and he does the same for Blake. She’s unconscious at first, but then regains consciousness.

But when Blake regains consciousnesses, the upper part of her body has been freed from the cellophane, while Eric is still wrapped up in his cocoon. She eventually frees herself and Eric from their cellophane bondage. An iPad in the back of the truck is suddenly operating and set to FaceTime mode with Mario and Vince, who are seated in the front of the truck with their own mobile device so they can keep video surveillance on their kidnapping victims. Mario and Vince use the iPad to communicate with Eric and Blake for the rest of the ride to the desert.

Mario tells Eric and Blake during the first FaceTime chat that he loosened the bonds for Blake to make things more comfortable and tells them that it’s kind of like this kidnapping’s version of business class. It isn’t clear if Mario and Vince checked to see if their kidnapping victims had any cell phones on them before they were put in the back of the truck. Blake doesn’t have a cell phone, but Eric does.

Most people in this situation would immediately call 911 or any police. But not Eric. The first call he makes is to his brother François (played by Jean Gardeil, who wrote “2 Graves in a Desert” screenplay), who’s been impatiently waiting for Eric at the airport because the two brothers (who are French Canadian) are supposed to visit their ailing mother at a hospital in Canada. Eric frantically tells François that he’s been kidnapped, and all he knows is that he’s trapped in the back of a flatbed truck. François has an odd response: He acts like he doesn’t care or doesn’t believe Eric, and he tells Eric to just get to the hospital as soon as he can.

Eric then calls the Vancouver police department, which tells Eric that they can’t help him because he’s out of their jurisdiction. (Obviously.) Eric also doesn’t know the truck’s make, model, license-plate number or destination. And wouldn’t you know, Eric has a burner phone that can’t be traced and the battery is running low.

Blake wants to know why Eric won’t call 911, but he gives her (and the viewers) no real answer. Considering the emergency situation, her response is a little too passive, because she won’t even try to grab the phone from Eric and call 911 herself. It’s one of the many stupid things about this movie, including the fact that the only woman with a significant on-camera role in the movie is a hooker. It makes the filmmakers look very backwards and sexist.

During the long ride in the truck (which is 80% of the movie), Eric tells Blake that she looks very familiar and he’s sure that they’ve met before. It’s then that Blake tells Eric that she’s a high-priced prostitute, and he was one of her clients. But don’t call her a “prostitute” or “hooker,” she tells Eric, because she’s an “escort.” Eric laughs at her pretentiousness (and most viewers will too) because he tells her it doesn’t matter what she calls herself, she’s still someone who has sex for money.

And why exactly were these two kidnapped? Blake tells Eric that she got a $40,000 fee from a client, and she hid the money from Mario, who’s her pimp. Eric tells Blake that he’s perfected a formula for a new underground drug, and Mario wants Eric to give him the formula, but Eric refuses to do it. The way that Eric describes the drug (which comes in pill form), it sounds like a cross between meth and Viagra.

Eric also tells Blake that he doesn’t care if he dies because he will never reveal the formula to Mario. He then offers Blake one of the pills that he happens to have on him. At first, Blake declines because she drops this bombshell: She’s pregnant. Blake won’t say who the father is, but she tells Eric that Mario thinks that he’s the father. And then she takes the pill anyway.

The tone of this movie is so off-kilter and nonsensical. For example, instead of trying to figure out a plan so they can get away from their captors, Blake and Eric have conversations in the back of the truck like they’re on a date. Blake also seems weirdly fixated on not having Eric negatively judge her for being a sex worker. It’s a little too late for that. He’s already been a client of hers. And apparently, the experience was so forgettable for him that she had to remind him.

In an apparent effort to impress Eric, Blake goes out of her way to tell Eric that she has a degree in economics, as if to prove she’s not a dumb hooker.  But then she acts like a “dumb hooker” by pulling out some bright red lipstick from her purse and doing her makeup in the middle of this horrible situation. (The movie also has some bad continuity problems, because in one scene, Blake has heavy makeup on, and then minutes later, she doesn’t.) What kind of person would care about putting on makeup in the middle of being kidnapped and trapped in the back of a truck? So dumb.

And then there’s the terrible dialogue. Eric asks Blake, “Do you have any plans?” She thinks he means plans to escape. No, he corrects her, he meant plans “for the weekend.” She replies, “No, I’m the kind of girl who goes with the flow.” What is this? A kidnapping or a dinner date?

Meanwhile, Mario and Vince are occasionally shown in the front of the truck taunting their victims via iPad chats. There’s not much to these one-note performances by Baldwin and Madsen. Baldwin plays the bossy brother, while Madsen plays the brother who just goes along and takes orders. At one point in the movie, Blake and Eric get roughed up by Mario and Vince, just to bring some more violence to the film.

And then Mario and Vince throw a dead body wrapped in black polyethylene in the back of the truck, next to Blake and Eric. Blake and Eric (and the viewers) find out who it is, but even after the body is dumped next to them, Blake and Eric continue their conversation to get to know each other. Eric even tries to kiss her, and they do some canoodling, as if they’re snuggling by a cozy fire instead of being bloodied and beaten and on the way to their potential deaths.

Viewers get no sense of who these characters really are or if what they say about themselves is really true. Eric asks Blake if her parents know that she’s a prostitute, and she tells him that her father committed suicide when she was 15 and her mother is a pill addict. But it’s never explained why Blake went from having a job in Wall Street finance (a career she said she used to have) to being a kidnapped hooker in the back of flatbed truck.

It’s hinted that Eric has a business background too, but the “truth” about their backgrounds might not even matter because the characters in this movie are so unlikable and so untrustworthy that viewers probably won’t care. The only things we know about Mario and Vince’s past is a story about their childhood that Blake tells Eric. That story is tied to something that happens later in the movie.

The four main actors in “2 Graves in the Desert” do little to elevate this movie’s flimsy plot. Baldwin and Madsen look like this movie was just an excuse to party, because their performances are very “phoned in,” although at times it does look like they genuinely enjoy working together. Howarth makes an effort to bring empathy to her Blake character, but she’s limited by the character being written as a vapid sex object. Gonzalez is the worst actor of the four, because his stilted and wooden delivery of the lines ruin some of the scenes that could’ve been more watchable if a better actor had been cast in the role. He really needs to take some more acting lessons.

“2 Graves in the Desert” might have worked slightly better as a short film, because that long ride to the desert is really just a lot of filler that will leave a bad taste in viewers’ mouths.

4Digital Media released “2 Graves in the Desert” on digital HD, VOD and DVD on March 3, 2020.