The Bentonville Film Festival’s mission is to celebrate diversity in cinema, both in front of and behind the camera. To combat the boys’ club vibe of Hollywood, BFF proudly screens movies made by women, like Ophelia, We Have Always Live In A Castle, andInternational Falls. This year, female filmmakers of color brought a pair sensational offerings about the experience of being a first-generation immigrant pulled between cultures with Go Back To China and Blinded By The Light. And there were tender tales of LGBTQA+ characters confronting prejudice and violence in Freak Show and The Garden Left Behind. Funny enough, these last two were among the best and worst I saw in my time in Arkansas. Let’s begin with the best.
The Garden Left Behind is a gritty indie drama shot in New York City. Its story centers on Tina (Carlie Guevara), a Latina trans woman beginning the process of medically transitioning. As Tina makes her way through the maze of appointments and approvals required for surgery, she faces an array of other troubles, like putting up with her flighty boyfriend, facing harassment from some transphobic creeps, and finding work as an undocumented immigrant so she can support her loving grandmother. Then, after another trans woman is brutally beaten by police, Tina joins her friends (including the dynamic duo Tamara M. Williams and Ivana Black) in a protest movement to save trans lives. All this is packed into a lean drama that’s raw, poignant, and daring.
Unlike many films about trans lives (Boys Don’t Cry, TransAmerica, Dallas Buyers Club, The Danish Girl), this one doesn’t have cis-gender actors playing trans roles. In a post-screening Q&A,
gay Latino writer/director Flavio Alves noted he cast trans people to play every trans character in his film. He’d spent years interviewing trans people as research for creating the film, and felt it only right to allow the trans community to portray Tina’s story. But this means some of the performers onscreen are pretty green, like leading lady Guevara. While her performance is a bit rough around the edges, she’s undeniably compelling as she flashes her wide smile at a flirtation and her dark eyes at a potential threat. She also shares an incredible chemistry with her onscreen abuela (Miriam Cruz). The pair swiftly ground the film’s central relationship, which has a radiant warmth.
But The Garden Left Behind is not only Tina’s story. The narrative splits between her and an enigmatic bodega clerk named Chris (Anthony Abdo). As she shops, he looks at her with an unreadable expression. As Tina makes progress in her transition, she is oblivious to Chris. But he’s watching her. But what does he think of her? Is he a threat or a would-be lover? This nerve-racking question is answered in a harrowing climax that had audiences gasping in horror.
Alves sought to tell a story of trans experience that reveals the real-life struggles that trans people face every day. That means making a living, supporting your family (biological and chosen), risking at love, and—too often—encountering violence. The Garden Left Behind shies away from none of this, and in doing so offers audiences a fully realized heroine who is authentic, complex, and compelling. For days after watching Alves’ film, my mind lingered on its choices. Then, as I watched Trudie Styler’s Freak Show, I marveled all the more at the risks Alves and his cast took, because it became very clear what playing it safe looks like.
Based on the novel by ’90s club kid James St. James, Freak Show follows teen drag princess Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther) as he’s forced to attend a red-state school where he’ll face gawking, religious condemnations, and violence. But rather than shrink into the ranks of the shadow people (the kids who hide their freak flags to try to fit in for self-preservation), Billy decides to rile the breeders by running for homecoming queen against the homophobic queen bee.
Both films center on a gender-norm-rejecting queer protagonist being attacked for being themselves. But Freak Show is the glossier version in every regard. It boasts a string of stars, including Abigail Breslin, John McEnroe, AnnaSophia Robb, Laverne Cox, and the one and only Bette Midler. Meanwhile, The Garden Left Behind’s big names are Ed Asner and Michael Madsen in minor roles. While Tina’s story is set among dive bars, laundry mats, and the low-income housing, Billy struts through an ornate mansion with a sprawling lawn, and a posh high school with hallways that make for perfect runways, dramatic staircases that allow for status-based staging, and a belltower, perfect for dramatic proclamations.
Billy Bloom isn’t just a rich kid. He’s an insanely wealthy one with a very indulgent mother (Midler), which means his wardrobe is full of absurdly expensive looks. While Tina favors t-shirts and the occasional cocktail dress, he’s strutting around in an enviable array of high fashion fantasies. A New Romantics-style suit one day, the next he’s gone geisha, or bejeweled mermaid, or a sequin-covered bridal look. Basically, Billy looks like one of the fishy young, white queens that often stomps onto RuPaul’s Drag Race with little self-awareness but a slew of Instagram followers, and limitless confidence. Both Styler and her screenwriters (Patrick J. Clifton and Beth Rigazio) seem to think that plus shade-throwing makes him a compelling hero. They’re wrong.
Billy Bloom is a catastrophic collection of gay cliches, from his outrageous outfits and snarky comments to his devotion to divas so intense that—of course—the Divine Miss M is his mother. He’s catty, putting down bullies with a quip about their outfits. He’s so wildly self-involved that he never learns the name of his supposed best friend, so Robb’s character is credited as “Blah Blah Blah.” And most crucially, he exhibits virtually no sexual desire. Sure, he has an all-consuming crush on a jock called Flip (Ian Nelson). But it’s presented as confoundingly chaste considering we are talking about a teen boy who is supposedly living out loud and proud. There’ll be no sex scene that might risk straight audiences squirming with discomfort. Instead, an embarrassing gym class boner will be played for laughs, and a non-consensual kiss is played as a shocking reveal about a tertiary character, rather than a meaningful moment for the protagonist.
By contrast The Garden Left Behind, Alves presents a pair of sex scenes that reveal Tina’s love life, but not much of her body. His shot choices bar the audience from reducing a trans person down to what lies between their legs. Instead, the sex scenes focus on Tina’s pleasure, and also on how her boyfriend treats her when they are alone versus in public. These intimate moments allows us greater insight into Tina’s life, whereas Freak Shows skittishness about sexuality suggests an unnerving discomfort with a key element of its hero’s identity.
There’s also the matter of how the film’s two protagonists identify. Tina is a proud trans woman. Period. Billy, on the other hand, shrugs off labels like “gay” or “transgender” in favor of “gender obliviator.” I have mixed thoughts on this. On one hand, today’s LGBTQA+ youth show far less interest in such labels. So, this could express an open-mindedness that speaks truthfully to their experience. But then I think about the cliches and the conservative treatment of Billy’s sexuality. Then this aversion to labels feels less intended to represent the experiences of contemporary queer teens, and more a candy-coated representation that’ll play well to straight audiences who can pat themselves on the back for finding Billy funny and non-threatening.
But the most troubling contrast between The Garden Left Behind and Freak Show is how the latter handles hate-crime violence. In The Garden Left Behind, the violence comes at the climax. It’s abrupt, brutal, but largely out of frame. Alves shows one blow then trusts the audience has seen enough to understand the impact and horror happening just off-screen. (We have!) By not showing more, Alves rejects using a trans body as gawker’s spectacle, just as he did in the sex scenes. Both in scenes of violence and love-making, his choices on what to show reflect respect for his main character and the community she represents. Styler went a different route for Freak Show.
Billy is beaten as the break into act two. (The homecoming gambit is the climax.) He is lured into an empty classroom, where a group of masked and hulking dudes awaits him. He’s dressed in a white gown, complete with a veil. Where Tina’s beating is bracingly realistic, his is deeply theatrical. In this outfit, he is the “perfect victim” like the Final Girl in a slasher movie: white, feminine, and innocent. The attackers pummel him, hoist him into the air, throw him to the ground, and kick him repeatedly. Styler shows this in slow-motion, but rather than the sounds of this beating, a trippy song plays, turning the beating into a violent dance. In a post-screening Q&A, Skyler said she hired a dance choreographer for the sequence because she wanted the beating to have the feel of a dance. Visually, this ties together Billy’s best and worst moments, as the beating is intercut with a flashback to when he was a young boy waltzing with his beloved mother. But emotionally, it dulls the blow of what we are witnessing. With the veil, the make-up, the costume, and the flashback, there’s plenty piled on to distance the audience from this impact of this violence and—by extension—the reality such violence is for so many queer youths.
I was disturbed by both films. The Garden Left Behind disturbed me with its climax and the grim injustice it reveals. Freak Show disturbed me for how Styler chose to smooth over the rough experiences of existing while queer to create a shiny bauble that’d play as more accessible to a broad audience. To her credit, it worked. Despite the fact that her movie was already available on VOD, I saw Freak Show in a theater at least twice the size as the one afforded The Garden Left Behind. BFF audiences were clearly more interested in a poppy tale of a plucky, pretty, privileged, and white queen battling a Mean Girl than the earnest drama about an undocumented Latina trans woman just trying to get by. And I get it, after all, I was there too. The Freak Show trailer is charming and fun. But the film itself is awful.
Aside from its cliches and pandering, Freak Show is a movie with no sense of dramatic tension and little interest in any character beyond Billy Bloom. It’s studded with stars, slathered in fun fashion, draped in a jaunty vibe, and centered around a cheeky but benign stereotype. But ultimately, it’s fluff. It’s deeply committed to not challenging its audience, instead content to preach to the choir. It has all the nuance of a sharpie-scrawled slur on a locker. It’s pacing is atrocious with scenes colliding together like drunken brunchers, without grace or intention. It’s at best a mediocre teen movie and at worse a reckless glossing over of queer teen tragedy. It might have won a bigger audience, but The Garden Left Behind won the fest.
This special, brave, and moving film took home the “Best In Fest” award. Hopefully, that’ll help The Garden Left Behind secure distribution. Keep an eye out for it. Forget Freak Show.
Freak Show and The Garden Left Behind played as part of the Bentonville Film Festival. Freak Show is now available on Hulu.
Image sources (in order of posting): IFC Films, Autonomous Pictures