“I’ll take a hug”
Sometimes a movie comes along at the perfect time. Maybe it’s a story you can relate to, a work firing on all cylinders aesthetically, or something that pulls you into its emotionality and refuses to let go. Garden State was that film for twenty-two year old, college graduate me embracing my first job in the field I hoped to one day call my career. As a working graphic designer my palette for the arts was exponentially expanding through cinema and music in ways it never had and then this stunner of a teaser arrived online to captivate my attention against the copycats surrounding it. There was no plot exposed, no dialogue or sense of mainstream ideals generally utilized to advertise a movie. It was just Imogen Heap‘s vocals, meticulously composed frames, and a visceral knockout punch leaving me on the floor.
Suffice it to say, my serendipitously being in Hollywood, CA the week it opened there ensured an afternoon jaunt to the ArcLight for a matinee populated by maybe four other souls in the dark all because of that one minute and sixteen second aberration of distilled cinematic bliss. Sure I recognized a few of the actors involved—how could you not with Ian Holm and Natalie Portman prominently featured—but I could have cared less about its star Zach Braff. To me he was just that guy from that show “Scrubs” I had heard was funny but never cared enough to watch. And this was his first-time writing and directing a film? With that cast? I baselessly thought about silver spoons. Yet somehow I still had crazy high expectations I’d be surprised anything could meet. Crazily they did.
I know there are vehement detractors who either truly hate the film or are too pretentious to admit enjoying it and I get their reasons—especially after revisiting it a decade later. A lot of the dialogue is stilted (“Hey, you’re this.” “What’s that?” “Oh, here, let me explain it so the audience understands.”); some music cues are clumsy (I love Remy Zero‘s “Fair” but what a weird build up to nothing during its twenty second snippet); and it often proves pretentious itself in pithy, never subtle metaphors strewn throughout. But it still worked for me. My brain might cringe at points, but my heart eats up every last scrap. The characters are broken, numb, and completely unsure of their purpose just like us. It’s a tale about surviving when existential survival seems impossible. It’s about life.
Here’s a twenty-something lost soul (Braff’s Andrew) coming home for the first time in nine years because his paraplegic mother passed away. His initial thought: maybe an end to her psychological suffering and depression was the best thing for her. This is some heavy stuff only exacerbated by his Lithium-induced indifference and inability to cry or show true emotion thanks to a psychiatrist father (Holm) forever striving to return their family to happier times that may never have actually existed in the first place. And while the drama unfolds we’re treated to genuine humor courtesy of a bitchy customer absurdly asking Andrew’s waiter for something to gnaw on, expertly blocked gaffes exposing a severed gas pump nozzle still lodged in his gas tank, or broad jokes like a seeing-eye dog humping his leg in a neurology waiting room.
It’s most definitely manufactured quirk—while thankfully not as dryly hipster as 2004’s other indie hit Napoleon Dynamite—and so many have copied Braff’s formula since that it’s become slightly tired. But he found an honesty to render it all charming rather than cloying. At least he did to me. We feel Andrew’s frustration and hope he can escape from the clinical, iron grip of his father as well as the crippling anxiety he piles onto himself. His leaving all medication at home in LA so this visit of grieving can serve as a detox is the first step; his experiencing how stagnant everyone’s life has become back home in New Jersey without pharmaceutical assistance the necessary wake up call to understand he isn’t the only one treading water nor the most unfortunate in this game called life.
It helps too that his childhood friends are for all intents and purposes a bunch of screw-ups who may have dragged him down further if he had stayed. The fact their caricatured existences add laughs, however, is their main appeal. Between teen cokehead Kenny (Michael Weston) cultivating a presence of authority as an adult cop, Jesse (Armando Riesco) turning a lucrative invention into an empty mansion and boredom, and Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) smoking pot at home with his mom (Jean Smart) when not digging graves or collecting Gulf War trading cards, every new character brings an eccentric touch that keeps the film on the edge between heightened style and mundane suburban living. They also provide situations for Braff and cinematographer Lawrence Sher to storyboard complex shots able to augment the comedy and drama inherent to each scene.
Besides the emotion and artistic visuals, however, Garden State has two more things making it special. One is the fantastic soundtrack and the other Natalie Portman’s Sam. The former becomes a character itself that helps steer our hearts in the same direction as Andrew’s personal thawing to feel for the first time in his life and the latter a manic contrast to his initially even-keeled monotony of expression. Sam is broken too, but she’s had the love and support of her mother (Ann Dowd) as well as a clear head to accept life’s struggles by laughing and crying at them. She ignites a fire inside Andrew through her authenticity, sarcasm, and insecurities. She forces him to talk about the hard topics whereas everyone else falls into the pattern of growing quiet before changing topics almost as a favor.
I’ll admit Braff and Portman race through some lines like they’re forcing themselves into a specific rhythm that’s less than natural and how the aesthetic sometimes falls into music video convention, but I can’t say I cared then or now. The film speaks to me like few others and that shouldn’t be ignored due to any shortcomings existing on a purely superficial level. Back in 2004 I saw myself in Andrew, Sam, and Mark traveling along their intersecting paths as different spins on the same theme. Today I can add Holm’s father’s well-intentioned delusions and Albert (Denis O’Hare) and Faye’s (Debbon Ayer) unwavering idealism. They’re all clichés and yet three-dimensional so in a way I can’t quite explain. And they populate a film that speaks to a generation of wandering souls by appealing to their humor and never ignoring their pain.
 Natalie Portman as Sam and Zach Braff as Andrew in Garden State. © 2004 Fox Searchlight Pictures
 Jim Parsons as Tim, Peter Sarsgaard as Mark and Jean Smart as Carol in Garden State. © 2004 Fox Searchlight Pictures
 Debbon Ayer as Faye and Denis O’Hare as Albert in Garden State. © 2004 Fox Searchlight Pictures