In “The Garden Left Behind,” director Flavio Alves, making his feature debut after a career in producing, delivers a film that is both a bit paint-by-numbers and genuinely moving in a quiet, indie film with a big message. Even though it bills itself as an inspiring tale about a woman finding her identity, ‘Left Behind’ is mostly devoted to exposing how Americans treat transgender people in 2020. Emphasis on “people.” Because hate crimes against trans people were at an all-time high in 2019, the message is as loud and clear as a megaphone at a protest.
The title refers to the transitioning experience many people go through, though it’s unclear why Tina (Carlie Guevara) has decided to embark on the journey. She is determined to go ahead with the procedure no matter the cost. And the cost is truly high. Big bucks are required for surgery, which means hours and hours of working as an Uber driver around Queens. As Tina smiles at her needy costumers in the backseat, you sense a natural warmth about her, one that practically fogs her glasses and helps drive the movie past its common narrative beats. This is someone who is fun to hang out with—her sassy humor endearing enough to correct all the monstrous trans villains of yesteryear (we’re looking at you “Silence of the Lambs”).
For Alves, the goal is for people to see Tina as human, even if it means checking off every “Look, she’s just like us!” box. His familiar narrative establishes an unfamiliar heroine. When Tina is sleeping in one morning, her grandma (Miriam Cruz) doubles as an alarm clock. “Get up!” she yells. “It’s time to get going.” The two are illegal immigrants from Mexico and the best of friends, as seen in a morning dance session to salsa music, putting a smile on all of your face as you watch the two women enjoy life. While some of the other narrative beats don’t work as well (Alex Cruz plays an iteration of a thousand other douchey boyfriends from romance dramas), Tina’s rapport with her support group is genuine and touching. These ladies snap their fingers, chug wine, and are all played, authentically, by trans actresses.
Sometimes, first features have the tendency to be a little convoluted in the script department, especially when it comes to crisscrossing timelines. After spending ten minutes in Tina’s company, soaking in her acts of kindness around New York, you want to spend as much time with her as possible.
Unfortunately, our time with Tina isn’t as plentiful as hoped, as the film throws in an unwanted subplot showcasing a teen named Chris (Anthony Abdo), who is bullied by his friends. This pressure from his bros leads Chris to develop an unhealthy obsession with Tina. Anyone who has seen “Taxi Driver” can guess where this is going. And anyone who has fallen for Tina will find themselves unconditionally moved by a raw, heart-stopping coda that puts everything into perspective.
Alves cleverly withholds Robert Pycer’s score until the finale, where it unleashes a sullen piano sonata that begs for your tears and earns them. Few slice-of-life dramas are committed to anything but establishing an airy tone. Fewer have the confidence to take this dark of a turn.
In the third act, Tina’s doctor tells her that it’s “good to have a loud voice.” She smiles, as she often does, then asks for reassurance, “Really?” Really. Alves and Guevara may be making a quiet film about the mistreatment of trans people in America, but their voices are loud and demand to be heard. [B-]