“Garden State” is an impressive debut from actor and first-time writer/director Zach Braff, who succeeds in capturing both the joy and pain that life can bring. With outlandish characters, humorous situations, and an overall atmosphere of an unpredictable world, Braff creates a heartfelt film that extends the importance of not only being a bystander in your own life, but also living it to the fullest.
Garden State is the nickname given to the state of New Jersey. Last year, I read a poem by Andrew Marvell called “The Garden.” One line of the poem states, “Such was that happy garden-state. / While man there walked without a mate.” Zach Braff is a genius actor and director. I do not find it a coincidence that the author’s name is Andrew, and his character’s name is Andrew. Just from reading this line, we are also able to sense a somber, and lonely mood, which is clearly set and executed throughout Braff’s entire film. By starring in and directing “Garden State”, the movie offers its viewers the best of both worlds as Zach Braff not only displays his diversity as an actor, but also reveals that he is multi-talented, and can take on the role of a director as well.
Struggling actor, Andrew Largeman, returns to his birthplace of New Jersey after nine years to attend his mother’s funeral. A quarter-inch piece of plastic has determined much of his life, when he accidentally participated in a freak accident that paralyzed his mother from the waist down. As a result, their relationship has been “dead” for many years, and Andrew has been put on medication from the age of ten.
Andrew missed the pain and grief of his mother’s injury and death because of the medications that he has consumed for half of his life. Andrew was put on medication to, “curb his anger” after his participation in his mothers freak accident. He has been on medication since the age of nine, and he has replaced the feeling the angst and awkward times of teenage years, with depression and numbness. However, Largeman seems to be quickly sucked back into the life he left nine years earlier when he arrives home. Mark, one of Andrew’s old high school friends, is a gravedigger and helped bury his mother. The process of burying Andrew’s mother in a sense uncovers a part of Largeman’s buried life when he is introduced to a life filled with parties, high school girls, drugs, and emotions. Even though Andrew takes ecstasy, smokes weed, and drinks, he still “feels nothing.” All of these experiences are foreign to Largeman because he never quite developed social skills, and felt like an outsider for his entire life.
Andrew stays emotionally dead until he runs into a girl named Sam (Natalie Portman), an individual that would seem to have little in common with him, when he is waiting for his doctor’s appointment. She is listening to a song called, “New Slang” by the Shins, and a lyric from the song states, “I’m looking in on the good life I might be doomed never to find. Without a trust or flaming fields am I too dumb to refine?” At the doctor’s office, Sam reaches over and puts her headphones on Largeman, insisting that he should listen to the Shins because, “they will change his life.” The use of music in this scene foreshadows Sam and Andrew’s relationship.
“Garden State” uses astonishing music, beautiful cinematography, and a phenomenal cast to create the perfect movie experience. The Garden State soundtrack featuring songs such as “Green Eyes” by Coldplay, and “In the Waiting Line” by Zero7, enrich the movie’s form of depth and meaning. Each song fits the mood at the time of the scene, and compliments the film work. The use of “under the radar” artists is a real treat for our ears, as we are introduced to new indie songs. Braff’s film also uses camera techniques to enhance and evoke the audience’s emotions. For example, scenes such as Andrew, Sam, and Mark standing in the rain wearing trash bags as rain gear, screaming at the top of their lungs, evokes a buildup of emotion, and we are able to watch the characters release it. The song played at that moment, “The Only Living Boy In New York,” could quite possibly reveal that Largeman is no longer the only living boy in New Jersey. This also connects to Marvell’s poem, expressing that Andrew is no longer a man in the Garden State walking without a mate. He is surrounded by friends, and is experiencing life to the fullest.
Andrew learns that leaving his medication at home was a gift in disguise through his encounters with old and new friends. Without his medication, he is no longer sleepwalking in a permanent haze of suppressed emotions and medication prescribed by his own psychiatrist father, but rather reattaching himself to the world of experience and emotion. An example of Largeman consuming himself in a world of emotion, is when Sam teaches Andrew the importance of being unique and making a mark in your life. She tells, and displays for him a belief of hers that all awkward moments can be banished by doing something unique that no one has ever done before, like an unusual body movement or a funny noise. “It makes you special again, and worthwhile, even if only for a second.” Sam is a girl who is everything that he is not, and through her help, Largeman is now able to discover the one thing that has eluded him all this time — himself. Little incidents like these with Sam, allow Andrew to feel ok and at peace with himself.
Later on, Largeman learns about Sam’s unique family. When he first goes to her house, he is barraged by a dog, and Sam yelling to “kick it in the balls.” He then hears her mom asking to “put the clothes in the dryer and bury Jelly.” Sam lives in a chaotic environment filled with jumping dogs, a plethora of hamsters, and an adopted brother, Titembay that lives with her family. Sam knows that her family is a handful and states, “”You’re freaking out, aren’t you? You’re totally freaking out. You’re like running for the door.” Andrew asks her to stop saying that, since he wouldn’t be there if he didn’t want to be. Andrew has what is seen as a good family, but he relates more closely to Sam’s chaotic family because Sam’s family is accepting and loving of each other despite their differences.
Andrew’s old idea of home is described as a place, “ You feel like you can never get it back. It’s like you feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist. Maybe it’s like this rite of passage, you know. You won’t ever have this feeling again until you create a new idea of home for yourself, you know, for your kids, for the family you start, it’s like a cycle or something. I don’t know, but I miss the idea of it, you know. Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.” His view of home changes after seeing Sam’s home, and meeting her family. Andrew is now able to see that the idea of home is not necessarily consumed with your shelter, or physical living space. He accepts that home isn’t necessarily where you live, but where you belong. When Sam and Largeman leave Sam’s house, Sam’s mother insists on hugging Andrew as well. Largeman finds a “home” and comfort in Sam and her family. He is happy to receive a hug from her mom, and even stays intertwined in her arms for a while.
At the end of the film, not only does Andrew have emotions, but he is also expressing them. He is now able to tell his father how he feels, and can move forward and start to mend their broken relationship. He also yells at Mark, then later thanks him when Mark gives him his mother’s locket that she was wearing when she was buried. Yet the greatest challenge of them all, was saying goodbye to Sam. He shares, “ This hurts so much. If nothing else, that’s life, you know. It’s real. Sometimes it fuckin’ hurts. To be honest, it’s sort of all we have.” By stating this, Largeman has shifted from emotionless to emotional. After living in emotion for four days, Largeman must decide between continuing to put an ellipsis on what is important in life, or settling on some sort of full stop. This ending is far from cliché and presents us with issues that people face everyday.
Watching Andrew succeed through struggles and break past social barriers reveal that he has a “larger” life to lead. “Garden State” is a movie that reaches out to a world of people that share the similar crossroad in life that Andrew is faced with, while simultaneously sharing an important message that, “We may not be as happy as we always dreamed we would be, but, for the first time let’s just allow ourselves to be whatever it is that we are.” Garden State will win over audiences with its deep meaning, and refreshing honesty. It may even make you question your own life, asking yourself, what is my life worth living for?