“The Garden Left Behind” is a queer cinema throwback, a simple slice-of-life/what-we-deal-with portrait reminiscent of the early “Here’s who we are” melodramas of the “Lianna” (1983) to “Go Fish” (1994) era.
It’s introductory by nature, polished yet primitive, just like the films that dominated gay big screen storytelling long before the alphabetic expansion to “LGBTQ.”
Director Flavio Alves’ film — John Rotondo co-wrote it — is a “transition” primer, what one person coping with “gender dysphoria” has to go through to be happy in her own skin.
Tina (Carlie Guevera) drives a licensed Town Car around her corner of New York, supporting herself and her abuela (granny), her last surviving relative (Miram Cruz). She’s the only person in her life who still calls her “Antonio,” only speaks Spanish and longs for the day they might “return to Mexico.”
Tina’s got a support system of transgender women of color like herself, with Carol (Tamara M. Williams) her spirit guide through medical officialdom’s “process” of transitioning.
“It’s just so much,” Tina complains. “I have to go to the doctor to see the psychologist to get the letter to get the approval…”
The doctor (Ed Asner) is sympathetic, but serious-minded and very, very old. His probing questions make Tina cry. And no, you do NOT get to compare this to “getting a tattoo.”
She is not happy that she has to “convince some old-ass man” of her sincerity. But she’s undocumented. And the back-alley alternative isn’t something her ladies-who-lunch crowd will let her consider.
Tina also has a long-term boyfriend. But while Wall Street Jason (Alex Kruz) may finally get around to taking her out, he’s more interested in sex on the down low.
And then there’s the bodega clerk (Anthony Abdo) she flirts with. Chris is young, easily bullied and runs with a rough, homo/transphobic crowd. Fitting in with them means letting them shoplift, listening to a LOT of hate speech, playing baseball and keeping his sexual proclivities secret.
“The Garden Left Behind” weaves these threads together and resolves these stories in quite conventional — for the genre and subject matter — ways. We see the steps in Tina’s transition laid out. Tina is radicalized by violence against a trans woman she and her friends know. Chris and Jason will fight their true natures and reveal who they are.
And another “name” actor will show support and help get the film made by playing a sympathetic, tolerant bartender (Michael Madsen).
The transgender actors aren’t nearly as polished as the established “names” in the cast — line readings that have a stiff theatricality, etc. That and the care-worn and over-familiar “my struggle” story are what I mean by “primitive.” If you don’t know where this is going early on, you’re not getting out enough. And haven’t been getting out enough for years.
By and large, though, “Garden” is shot, lit and edited as well as most studio pictures.
Its value in its topicality — transgender people are still facing violence, and not just in “Boys Don’t Cry” America — and in representation, putting people on the screen who still aren’t often depicted in screen dramas, treating them sympathetically and “explaining” their lives to those of us in need of a primer.
But “Garden Left Behind” is not “Tangerine” or “The Danish Girl” or “Boys Don’t Cry” or “Transamerica.” That it comes after all those “introductory” and groundbreaking films is why, as sympathetic as it might be, it’s just as forgettable as it is watchable.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, sex
Cast: Carlie Guevara, Miriam Cruz, Anthony Abdo, Tamara M. Williams, Alex Kruz, Ed Asner and Michael Madsen.
Credits: Directed by Flavio Alves, script by Flavio Alves and John Rotondo. An Autonomous release.
Running time: 1:28