Garden State: It’s in it

Culminating the recent stretch of graduation/high school/transition period movies reviewed with the best film of the ‘Your whole life is ahead of you, but what do you do?’ genre I’ve seen.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 4)

Garden State was the first movie I ever loved.  It was the first film I remember seeing that challenged my notions of what films could do, the first that really made me forget I was watching a movie and think I was seeing someone’s life unfold in front of me.  For those reasons, it will always retain a special place in my collection, not to mention a spot very high on my movie ranking.

Zach Braff drew solid reviews for writing, directing, and starring in this understated picture.  He plays Andrew Largeman, an emotionally blank, little-known actor who, at the age of 25, hasn’t been home in nine years.  That changes when he receives a phone call from his father Gideon (Ian Holm) telling him his mother drowned in a bathtub.  Though it’s clear from the start that something’s not quite right between those two, Andrew returns home.  Yet, possibly because his mother’s disability that contributed to her death was partially Andrew’s fault, the funeral doesn’t provoke much sadness in him.

Strongly sedated by a host of drugs his father made him take from the age of nine, Andrew’s life upon returning home has no meaning for him.  He acts so catatonic that the only roles he’s recently been offered are of mentally challenged people.  When he meets up with former friends who haven’t seen him in so long, he doesn’t seem to care that they don’t notice how boring the interactions are to him.

His friends, by outward appearances, aren’t being productive with their lives either.  Mark (an impressive Peter Sarsgaard) still lives at home at 26 and supplements his grave-digging income with duplicitous but rather shrewd methods.  Another made a ton of money off a clever invention, with the result being that he’s never been so bored.  Andrew’s friends also appear more interested in pitching movie ideas to Andrew than learning about what’s happened in his life for the last decade (shown most clearly with a hilarious interaction between Andrew and a friendly cop).  “I like being unimpressive,” Mark drawls, “I sleep better.”  But, as Andrew slowly perceives, they still enjoy life and care about people around them, two things he’s has forgotten how to do.

The one person who draws this out of him is Sam (Natalie Portman), a free spirit he meets in a doctor’s office waiting room.  She doesn’t have much depth to her, but this movie gets away with that; the focus remains with Andrew, and that’s fine.  Their courtship is sweet and innocent; you can see Sam’s love in the way she says “Shut up” to Andrew at one point in her house or wipes away his first tear in ages in a quietly moving scene in a bathtub.  For a while I was disappointed at the ease with which Sam and Andrew were drawn together, but it no longer bothers me.  It’s one of those things you have to accept; if you can’t, you won’t like the movie.  It works for me because a) Braff and Portman have such chemistry, and b) the movie uses the relationship to develop its storyline and complicate Andrew’s character—it’s not just the end of the line.

As Andrew begins to open up to Sam and his friends and see the value of his life, the movie is filled with delightful scenes, such as when Sam and Andrew go for a late-night swim with some friends.  Andrew can’t swim (“there’s a few normal childhood activities I missed out on,” he says), prompting one of his friends to declare that he looks “like a wet beaver.”  As the others cavort in the pool, Sam joins Andrew in the shallow end, upon which they discuss what it means to realize for the first time that your childhood house is no longer your home and that you cannot recapture that feeling until you create your own family.

This is a particularly delicate subject for Andrew, whose family life was destroyed by an incident in his youth.  Angry at his mother’s constant depression and his family dynamics, he pushed her against a dishwasher when he was nine.  Because the door had become unlatched, she felt backwards on the open door and hit her head on the counter, paralyzing her from the waist down.  In response, he was medicated, then at sixteen sent away to a boarding school, after which he did not return home.

Is the reason for the icy relationship between Andrew and his father the former’s action or the latter’s inability to forgive?  Did the latter try to ignore the problem by having Andrew medicated and sent away, or did Andrew refuse to let his father into his world and tell him what was wrong with him?  To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t present simple answers to these questions.  Even after Andrew finally sits down and opens up the wounds with his father, it lets us draw our own conclusions.

Ultimately, what Andrew determines is that he’d rather be able to feel whatever emotions he has without them being suppressed—he’d rather live life to make memories and accept the negative moments when they come.  Though he might not be able to get his father to realize it, he’s aware that his family was never very happy, but their greater mistake was shutting him away.  “You and I are gonna be OK,” he tells his father in the scene that’s more the climax for me than the actual one.  “We may not be as happy as you always dreamed we would be, but for the first time let’s just allow ourselves to be whatever it is that we are…and that’ll be better.”

What makes this resonate so strongly is not just the convincing message, but also the truth that we understand that Andrew has changed because of what he’s experienced back home.  Braff strikes an excellent tone, capturing the approach that many people that age today bring to their lives.  As the film progresses, the spot-on scenes occur with more and more frqeuency, the actors (Braff, Portman, Sarsgaard) developing more and more depth.  Alert viewers will notice the several clever touches Braff the director adds to show what’s going on in Andrew’s mind—the opening scene, the writing on his chest, the faucets in the bathroom, etc.

I would have appreciated it if the hurt between Andrew and his father (a potentially fascinating character) was emphasized more, perhaps at the expense of some of the brief tangents the movie takes (or in addition to them; it’s not a long film).  A bit too much time is spent trying to make us laugh rather than think.  And the movie really should have ended about a minute before it actually did.  In your mind, envision the movie ending at the 1:34:29 mark and see whether you think the themes hit home stronger.

These flaws swim around in my head every now and then until I re-watch Garden State, upon which point I forget all of them and deem it better than I last remembered.  The genuine heart and intelligence that pervade the entire movie are what stay with me, and not only does everything feel appropriately connected together, it feels connected to my life.  That is what can make a movie overcome anything.

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

The Goods: Film Reviews

The Goods: A Film Podcast

Available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, and more.

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