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"The Garden Left Behind" is a Must-See Festival Hit

Part 3 of 3 by Nathaniel R

"The Garden Left Behind" is a festival hit

The 5th annual Bentonville Film Festival deserved more than three posts but we do what we can with our time (ICYMI - parts one and two). At any rate we will have an opportunity to revisit a few of the films when they arrive in movie theaters. But herewith the wrap up via our "Best of Fest" winner. Don't miss it when it hits a festival near you (it'll be on the circuit for at least a few more months) or your local arthouse movie theater a bit later.

This first time feature, a trans drama from gay Brazilian director Flavio Alves, picked up its second festival Audience Award at Bentonville. The first was at SXSW. Alves is still talking with distributors and the film has sparked interest but at this writing nothing is quite nailed down yet. Given that trans stories are increasingly popular with audiences, someone really ought to bite, as there's surely an arthouse market for it...

All the trans characters in "The Garden Left Behind" are played by trans actors

 Tangerine, Sean Baker's hilarious and brilliant comedy in 2015 did $700k at the US box office in a less hospitable climate and since then there's been an explosion of discussion of the T in LGBT as the the new civil rights social justice battleground and Pose has become a major player on TV. Ryan Murphy's series and RuPaul's Drag Race have both stolen so liberally from the once marginal classic doc Paris is Burning (1990) that it's almost like counter culture of the late 80s is now mainstream culture. At any rate this new picture is not about ball culture or performer-types so we digress. It is, neverthless, a story about trans people of color. They're just less self-consciously fabulous this time. The point is this: it's a treat and something of a revelation to see a trans story that takes place entirely outside of that realm / point of view, even if New York is still the locale.

The Garden Left Behind is on a far more intimate scale as we get familiar with a 30 year-old trans girl named Tina (Carlie Gueverra in a beautiful film debut) struggling to make ends meets to provide for herself and her live-in Abuela Eliana (Miriam Cruz) who still calls her "Antonio". Abuela Eliana is constantly wishing they could move back to Mexico which she now mythologizes as some kind of Eden (hence the title).

Miriam Cruz gifts us with a soulful naturalistic performance in "The Garden Left Behind"

Because the dialogue is more casual and realistic than plot driven or expository, Alves trusts his actors (most of them complete newbies) to sell the interpersonal drama and lived-in quality that makes the film so charming, despite its often bruising events. It's trust that's rewarded because the cast is wonderful. Gueverra is a natural and a luminous camera presence and Cruz is absolute perfection, so real you could mistake her for your own aging relative. You'd practically want to move in with the two of them if there was only room, there's so much love in their modest apartment even if they're often bickering within it.

The supporting cast, is also strong. Carol (Tamara M. Williams) and Amanda (Ivana Black) are Tina's supportive best friends  as she plans to begin her transition (she isn't yet on hormones). Black is blessed with what might be the movie's most insightful and unassumingly riveting scene, a casual Spanish-language conversation with Abuela Eliana, that finally gives us a glimpse of where Eliana's head may be at when it comes to her grandchild's life outside of their day-to-day habits together. Ed Asner and Michael Madsen, the only traditional 'Hollywood' actors who appear, have small sympathetic parts but they manage to blend right in, even while sticking out; both characters are outsiders to the trans community but work with them, Asner as a psychiatrist and Madsen as a bar owner.

Flavio Alves (far left) directing a scene.

The gifted first time feature director risks alienating audiences who like their gritty LGBT movies to be flashier and funnier but he does so to stay true to the overall vision and aims of the movie. This is a slice-of-life picture, and life is not always dazzling or amusing, especially for marginalized communities. There are bills to pay, limited job prospects, green card issues, and potential violence around every corner (as the film begins we learn of another transwoman named Rosie who was murdered in the area). While The Garden Left Behind lays on the foreshadowing too thick, and isn't half as nuanced and graceful with a subplot involving the a local deli worker (Anthony Abdo) and his friends who regularly harass Tina, it packs a real cumulative wallop. If you ever cry at movies, you'll be a sobbing mess when Abuela Elena is asked to answer the simplest of questions near the film's end. She hesitates but ultimately answers with truth and unconditional love.

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