When it comes to transgender representation on screens both large and small, 2019 has been a watershed year in many respects. It began with the groundbreaking fifth season of TLC’s excellent docuseries, “I Am Jazz,” which meticulously charted the journey of its teenage subject, Jazz Jennings, as she embarked upon her gender confirmation surgery while supported every step of the way by her family. Neither exploitative nor sentimentalized, the show portrayed the various challenges inherent in the procedure, while affirming why they were so crucial for Jennings to face and ultimately overcome. Her video posted on Instagram, following her successful surgery, where she belted out Helen Reddy’s classic anthem, “I Am Woman,” was one of the most euphoric things I’ve seen all year.
Speaking of “Euphoria,” Sam Levinson’s hit HBO drama of the same name contained a pivotal heroine, Jules (brilliantly played by trans actress Hunter Schafer), who subverted every trope typically associated with transgender identity in media. Jules was introduced not as a trans character, but simply as a beautiful young woman desiring to find love on her own terms. Her infatuation with a repressed jock (Jacob Elordi), however, threatened to erupt in violence, as his simultaneous attraction and repulsion toward her led him to cloak his self-loathing in sadism.
Brazilian director Flavio Alves’ prize-winning gem, “The Garden Left Behind,” screening this Sunday at Milwaukee’s Film Girl Film Festival, features a similar dynamic between its trans lead, Tina (Carlie Guevara), and an owl-eyed man, Chris (Anthony Abdo), who quietly ogles her from behind his store counter. Though the film consists less of a plot than a succession of scenes, an encroaching sense of dread permeates the narrative every time it cuts back to Chris and his vile group of bullying friends. He can’t score a run in a neighborhood baseball game without being pummeled by the rival team. We find ourselves rooting for him here since he appears somehow impervious to the toxic masculinity exuded by his peers, yet there is an immensity of volcanic rage building inside of him that makes each of his encounters with Tina all the more uncomfortable.
She embodies the sort of fearless individuality that his friends aim to break down in others, if only to strengthen their own delusions of superiority. As a dear friend of mine once observed, a person’s mere existence can serve as a protest, and Tina is living proof of that. Not only is she a trans woman applying to receive treatment in the form of a testosterone blocker, she is also an undocumented immigrant from Mexico living with her grandmother in New York City. This makes her a ripe target for the sort of prejudice empowered by our current president, and yet—as proclaimed by an activist in the powerful clip embedded below—she has the right to exist.
When a trans woman is left hospitalized after being brutally beaten by police officers, Tina joins her defiant sisterhood in taking to the streets, publicly revolting against the escalating scourge of hate crimes. A closing footnote to the film arrives in the form of a GLAAD statistic citing 2018 as the deadliest year on record for transgender people in America, with nearly all of the victims being trans women of color. There’s no question this horrifying trend has been aided immeasurably by our government’s systemic attack on the inalienable rights of trans citizens. Just this past Friday, the Trump Administration announced that it would be ending civil rights protections for health and human service programs, approving anti-transgender discrimination in such lifesaving services as HIV prevention and housing for homeless youth, all in the name of preserving “religious freedom.”
The tragedy characterizing this film’s backdrop and eventually its foreground is reflective of the dark times in which we currently reside, and yet there is palpable hope to be gleaned from all that precedes its final moments. Guevara is utterly luminous in the lead role, whether she’s forging delightful chemistry with Miriam Cruz (as her adorable grandma) or finding sexual fulfillment with her longtime boyfriend (Alex Kruz) whose love lifts her up—that is, until personal pressures cause him to betray his own feelings. The two biggest names in the ensemble, Michael Madsen and Ed Asner, lend additional warmth as voices of guidance and acceptance with their respective roles as bartender and psychologist. Asner is particularly touching as he wins over Tina with his disarming humanity, despite his invasive questions designed to determine whether she indeed has gender dysphoria.
On the heels of his marvelous work in Stephen Moyer’s “The Parting Glass” and Liz Feldman’s “Dead to Me”—Netflix’s sublime answer to “Big Little Lies”—Asner’s involvement in this film speaks to his undying love of projects championing progressive values. The picture also appears to be a personal one for its director, who received political asylum in the United States two decades ago before becoming an assistant to Hillary Clinton. There’s lovely symbolism in the film’s title illuminated by Cruz, as she recalls the garden she left behind in Mexico, and how the simple life it provided would be preferable to the complications found in the states. Tina’s decision to leave behind the body she was born with in order to externalize the truth of her inner identity guarantees a more complicated future, yet it’s the only one that will bring her true happiness.
I wish the film’s final moments hadn’t cut short its exploration of how trans people might cope with medical issues that would prevent them from having the hormone dosage necessary for a physical transition. Aside from that nagging omission, this is still a powerful and important film sure to emerge as a highlight of critic Andrea Thompson’s annual festival showcasing exciting female voices in cinema. Jeanette Jennings, Jazz’s mother, once told me that she hopes her daughter would be considered for any role, not only those that are trans, if she were to pursue a career in acting. That is what I hope, above all, for rising stars like Hunter Schafer and Carlie Guevara, who are clearly among the finest performers working today. They deserve as much freedom as any other artist in tackling subjects existing beyond the boundaries of their personal experience.
“The Garden Left Behind” screens at 7pm on Sunday, November 10th, at The Underground Collaborative, 161 W. Wisconsin Ave, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as part of the Film Girl Film Festival (running November 8th through the 10th). To purchase tickets, click here.