There is no pre-existing transgender cinema canon, which is why addressing contemporary films following trans characters is akin to the first wave of films following gay and lesbian characters in the sixties. We’ve only just started moving on from casting cisgender actors in trans roles, affording them the critical acclaim and awards attention struggling trans performers should rightly be claiming – and we can only assume that the next major breakthrough will be allowing more trans filmmakers the chance to tell their own stories.
In a recent article for Cherry Picks, the trans film critic Willow Maclay discussed how the concept of transgender cinema could be defined, as this was a “cinematic canon that is forming in real time”, difficult to pin down because of different perspectives. Maclay personally saw herself in sci-fi stories of identity (most recently, Alita: Battle Angel) over cinematic dramas directly grappling with the gritty realities of contemporary trans lives, and everything from horror to teen comedies have been cited by other writers. After a lifetime of experiencing little to no representation onscreen, is it that much of a surprise to find that trans film fans were looking outside the box to discover films which resonated with them?
This is an incredibly long winded way of introducing how best to contextualise and assess The Garden Left Behind, Flavio Alves’ drama which picked up the audience award at this year’s South by South West. I’m intrigued and excited to see how the concept of a trans cinematic canon will grow, how it differentiates between writers, and how it appears to exist in tandem to films like Alves’ understated character study. This is not to the detriment of Alves’ film by any means – with over 50 trans people working on the project, and notable support from GLAAD, The Garden Left Behind is a well researched and exceptionally moving drama, without a whiff of exploitation. But can a movie about the threats to the existence of trans people largely aimed at cisgender audiences have a meaningful impact regardless?
His film follows Tina (newcomer Carlie Guevara), an undocumented Mexican immigrant who has spent the vast majority of her life in the United States. Living with her grandmother (Miriam Cruz), Tina is hoping to raise the money for the next step in her transition, while dealing with a long term boyfriend who appears embarrassed to be seen with her in public. Elsewhere, the film tackles important themes such as violence against trans women (particularly trans women of colour), and the normalised prejudice against the community.
Alves was granted political asylum to the United States in 1998, after his nonfiction book about serving in the navy as a gay man saw him receive death threats. He’s spent his time in the US passionately speaking out in favour of LGBTQ rights, and has spent the past five years researching this project. Even throughout the film’s missteps, there’s a notable sense of dedication towards depicting the normalcy of anti-trans hatred in America, and the bureaucratic hoops trans people have to jump through to get recognised by the state, all depicted without becoming too polemical or heavy handed.
It’s in the film’s smallest moments when it truly shines. The relationship between Tina and her grandmother is the most moving arc in the film, differentiating from trans drama conventions to offer a truly loving family dynamic – where confusion surrounding pronouns and semantics doesn’t act as a necessary shorthand for prejudice, with Tina loved and supported every step of the way. But this brings me back to my earlier question: can a trans character study be counted as a success if it’s designed to enlighten cisgender audiences first and foremost?
If there is a concept of a trans cinematic canon, The Garden Left Behind feels like an important text as one of the final films in the current wave of positive trans portrayals by cis filmmakers. Alongside Sebastian Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman and Danielle Lessovitz’ divisive Port Authority (with which The Garden Left Behind shares several noted similarities, particularly in its subplot), these are well meaning and genuinely moving films that finally foreground trans actors within their own stories. But now richer, more authentic stories like these have been normalised, it’s surely time to give way to the trans storytellers who can nail an authenticity cisgender filmmakers can spend years researching, but never quite nail. Once again, this is not a criticism – these films are badly needed in a cinematic landscape devoid of trans stories (and trans performers to tell them) for years. However, I’d wager that all these directors listed above, whose innate senses of empathy are apparent within their films, would be happy let their films step aside for the next wave of trans stories.
The Garden Left Behind is an important reminder of the violence and oppression faced by trans women of colour on a daily basis.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Flavio Alves