The Garden Left Behind is about a woman and her grandmother, both undocumented immigrants, living together in New York City. Abuela Eliana (Miriam Cruz) dreams of returning to her beloved Mexico while Tina (Carlie Guevara) dreams of the day she can complete her transition. Without papers, money is scarce and medical insurance unheard of, so it’s been a long path for Tina. But she has a second family in the trans community, and a strong circle of fiercely protective women surrounding her, so you want to believe she’ll be all right.
Director Flavio Alves situates Tina in a city filled with love and support, but also hatred and violence. Even the slightest decisions she makes may threaten her personal safety, not to mention her mental health. Meanwhile, her gender identity must be performed for an elderly doctor (Ed Asner) who ultimately gets to decide whether or not she’ll get to be a candidate for transition. Not that his pronouncement either way would save her from judgment or brutality if it came to that. Which is why Tina takes to the streets in protest for a friend beaten by police. Her status makes activism risky, but her very existence is a risk in a world where cruelty is an answer to otherness.
As much as I admired the greater context offered by Alves, it was the grandmother-granddaughter relationship at the heart of the story I responded to most. Abuelita does not understand, but she learns she doesn’t need to. She learns that her love is enough. It’s also relatively rare in this kind of story, so it’s as remarkable and inspirational as it is welcome.
The cast, made up of actual trans people, is refreshingly authentic, and I believe this casting is what really sells the story. What also really works is that Tina is at peace with herself. The world may have problems with her, but the conflict is never internalized. She knows who she is, and while perhaps feeling resentful at having to demonstrate it, she never wavers. But the outside world brings more than enough conflict to make up the difference.
Carlie Guevara, like Tina, is a young trans woman of colour. She is a target for hate but also a symbol of hope; she, and others like her, persist. Guevara is luminous and magnetic. But what makes this movie feel really truthful on top of watchable is that it’s not just hardship and struggle. It rises above the bleakness to deliver pure authenticity.