For everyone who has so much scanned a headline about the brutality routinely inflicted upon the Trans community, the first 30 seconds of The Garden Left Behind will plummet stomachs. “Oh no!” I mumbled, using words more colorful than “Oh no!” Between its wordless, atmospheric opening—one that feels like the precise moment a fish realizes “Hey, that’s not a worm!”—and the film’s gut-punch ending breathes an authentic, gentle snapshot. Roger Ebert called movies “empathy machines.” Although sometimes I long for an “empathy stick” with which to beat Ayn Rand fans over the head with, Ebert’s tool probably works better.
Writer John Rotondo and writer/director Flavio Alves don’t overcomplicate things, instead filling The Garden Left Behind with mundane things that have profound effects when we see “others” doing them. Tina (Carlie Guevara) is a Trans woman who lives with her grandmother (Miriam Cruz) in New York. For the most part, she’s just trying to scratch out a happy life. Her boyfriend is kind of a tool, her grandmother is loving but confused by Tina’s transitioning, and her psychologist is played by Ed Asner. That guy was Santa in Elf. You try confessing your deep emotional trauma to Mary Tyler Moore’s boss.
Tina’s day-to-day strife is contextualized with the dehumanizing unhappiness so many wish upon people like her. Tina joins a group advocating for justice after a Trans woman was brutally beaten. Just as that work and community are poised to empower her, things go all 2020. Without getting too far into spoilers, Tina’s story is contrasted by a sophisticatedly quiet look at the radicalization of young men and the toxic cloud spewed by repressive masculinity. “Oh no!” remember?
The Garden Left Behind telegraphs its punches, along with performances that can sometimes feel let’s say “less than nuanced.” Still, if that is the price paid for authenticity, it is a trade worth making every time over and twice on Pride day. Trans actors play all the trans roles here. Latinx actors play all the Latinx roles. Unsurprisingly, this makes the film feel like a legitimate exploration of its subject matter and not pandering or exploitation of suffering for the sake of cinema.
To be clear, this is still the cinema of suffering. The camera becomes a mirror when things start to fall apart for Tina. As much as it is inherent and specific to the Trans community, audiences are so trained to superimpose themselves on the protagonist, the pain Tina feels is universal. She just wants to be happy. That’s all. Happy and loved.
Narrative fiction can be a tunnel beneath the borders that segregate us. Ebert’s “empathy machine” metaphor is probably sexier than my tunnel analogy, but the idea is the same. The Garden Left Behind is a soft, brief, genuine connection to a community that deserves compassion. Just remember to brace yourself, because the “oh no” moment is gonna getcha.
Grade = A-