If there's one film that I'd absolutely love to see leave the 2019 Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis with a distribution deal, it would be Flavio Alves' remarkable narrative feature The Garden Left Behind. Screening in competition as a finalist in the narrative feature category at Heartland, The Garden Left Behind is practically everything I want a film to be as it tells the story of Tina (Carlie Guevara), a young trans woman, and Eliana (Miriam Cruz), her grandmother, as the two navigate Tina's transition and struggle to build a life for themselves as undocumented immigrants in New York City.
Alves, a gay Latinx filmmaker whose passion for the subject matter is obvious from frame one, spent years studying the violence faced by trans women, especially those of color, and has crafted a story that is both intelligently told and brought vividly to life through the authentic casting of trans actors in the roles of every single trans character in The Garden Left Behind.
Representation matters and The Garden Left Behind definitely represents.
Carlie Guevara is mesmerizing as Tina, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who supports she and her grandmother by driving a cab. As Tina nears transition, the finances tighten and the stress level rises. However, Alves, who co-penned the script alongside John Rotondo, never hits a false note and never allows Tina to be reduced to a cliche'. Scenes between Tina and her boyfriend are filled with realism and honesty, while other scenes between Tina and Eliana possess a refreshing normalcy not often afforded trans characters in Hollywood.
The Garden Left Behind premiered to acclaim at SXSW where Alves' authentic casting of both trans and Latinx actors was appropriately lauded. While the film's authentic casting certainly deserves its kudos, Alves deserves even greater kudos for having crafted one of 2019's most vivid, emotionally satisfying, and genuinely absorbing motion pictures.
The Garden Left Behind doesn't flinch in painting an honest portrait of the harassment and violence faced by trans women, yet what might be most surprising about the film is just how incredibly serene it is. There's a perfectly captured normalcy here that is certainly appropriate and deserved, though it's seldom portrayed on the big screen. Ed Asner is here as Dr. Cleary, a psychiatrist tasked with ensuring Tina's being psychologically prepared for her pending transition, while Tamara M. Williams and Ivana Black shine as two of Tina's trans friends who provide needed support and emotional care. Alex Kruz is strong as Jason, Tina's cis-male boyfriend with a few anxieties of his own.
There are hints of danger underneath the surface of Tina's life, though they really aren't borne out of Tina herself. Chris (Anthony Abdo) is a local with some unresolved baggage that could come unhinged at any moment, while a recent hate crime in the area adds a layer of tension that is realistically portrayed and common amongst trans women in American culture where violence continues to be prevalent even in the nation's bigger cities and more progressive areas.
Newcomer Guevara is truly the revelation here, radiating a warmth and honesty and transparency that makes us fall in love with Tina even if we don't necessarily get to know her as well as we might like. Guevara's scenes with Miriam Cruz are emotionally grounded and rich and lacking the unnecessary histrionics we so often find in this type of film.
The Garden Left Behind is, rather refreshingly, a story about real people living real lives with stories that feel genuinely manifested. This shouldn't necessarily be groundbreaking, but it's just so seldom that we see honest, straightforward stories involving trans characters who are allowed to be fully developed human beings.
Michael Madsen makes a welcome here appearance here, as well, and while the film's casting certainly deserves applause it's worth noting that Alves has cast the ensemble perfectly down to the smallest of roles.
The Garden Left Behind has picked up a slew of fest prizes along its festival journey including prizes at Bentonville Film Fest (Best of the Fest), Boston LGBT Film Festival (Audience Choice Award, Narrative Feature), Long Beach QFilm Festival (Best Director, Alves), North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (Jury Award, Best Drama Feature), North Louisiana Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (Audience Awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Performance for Cruz, Best Lead Performance for Guevara), OUT at the Movies International LGBT Film Fest (Audience Choice, Best Performance in a Leading Role), Sunscreen Film Festival (Festival Prize, Best Screenplay and Jury Awards for Best Feature Film and Best Actress), SXSW Film Fest (Audience Award, Visions), and Woodstock Film Festival (Honorable Mention, Best Editing).
Koshi Kiyokawa's lensing for the film is warm and immersive, yet tightens appropriately when needed. Frank Dale Arroyo and Alex Lora enhance the film's humanity and tension in all the right spots with editorial work that shines a spotlight on every emotion and every interaction.
Easily one of my favorite narrative feature films of 2019, The Garden Left Behind is a beautiful and timely film that features a breakout performance by Carlie Guevara that deserves to be noticed far and wide. With a terrific ensemble cast and top notch production values, The Garden Left Behind is one of the true indie gems of the 2019 Heartland International Film Festival.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic