VOD film review: The Garden Left Behind
Cathy Brennan | On 26, Jul 2021
Director: Flavio Alves
Cast: Carlie Guevara, Michael Madsen, Edward Asner, Danny Flaherty
Where to watch The Garden Left Behind online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Sky Store / Curzon Home Cinema
Good intentions do not a good film make. This is the main takeaway from Flavio Alves’ New York-set trans drama The Garden Left Behind, which is bogged down by a cloying script and a weak central performance.
The Garden Left Behind follows Tina (Carlie Guevara), an undocumented trans woman from Mexico living in New York with her grandmother. The film covers various aspects of Tina’s life: her struggle to access hormones, her relationship with a cis man who still has hang-ups with dating a trans woman, and her burgeoning activism following an instance of police brutality in the community. There is a separate narrative strand involving a young man called Chris and the staggering sacks of toxic masculinity that make up his friendship group. For savvy trans viewers, it’s easy to clock how Chris’ story and Tina’s will converge in the end, yet when that moment comes it’s no less nauseating. (Content warning here for gratuitous violence.)
There’s an air of desperation to the script in the way it wants the audience to recognise the discrimination and violence that trans women of colour like Tina face. It’s the mark of writers who have “done the reading” but are unable to articulate that knowledge into dialogue that crackles with the energy of lived experience. Scenes portraying trans activism are overly romanticised, whittled down to stirring speeches and montage.
The film is not entirely without merit, though. The moments between Tina and her grandmother hum with a quiet intimacy. The fact that Tina doesn’t challenge her grandmother’s continued use of her old name is a quiet bit of truth that resonates; it conveys something of the complex relationships trans people have with their families.
Yet the strength of these moments only serve to highlight how uneven the film is overall. It tries to cover a lot of the realities about being a trans woman but they never truly gel together, and only engage with these issues in a cursory manner. For instance, scenes between Tina and Ed Asner’s kindly clinician fail to adequately communicate the reasons for her distrust. To an audience uninformed about the invasive nature of gender dysphoria evaluations, these scenes will just look like standard therapy sessions.
Most of these problems are down to the weak foundation laid by the script, but unfortunately Guevara’s wooden performance as Tina deprives many scenes of a much-needed energy.
It is not pleasant to come down so hard on a film like this. The Garden Left Behind makes a genuine effort to highlight the prejudices and violence that trans women of colour face in the USA. However, the brutal fact is that there are far more accomplished films that deal with those same issues, Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca being chief among them. As more and more trans stories are being told across the world through film, with ever greater artistry, The Garden Left Behind will itself be left behind.