A beautiful and endearingly honest love story that remains just as fresh today as it was upon release, Zach “Scrubs” Braff’s writer/director debut, Garden State, is a relatively rare example of quality romantic drama done well, with interesting characters that are eminently flawed and thus far more true-to-life; surprisingly assured direction from this first-time filmmaker; and a stunning, perfectly-matched soundtrack that is, by Braff’s specific design, one of the most structurally important elements of the production. Well cast, well shot and well acted, this movie – along with its Award-winning soundtrack – deserves a place in everybody’s movie collection and, if you haven’t seen it yet then you are truly missing out on something really quite special.
“You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life, I swear.”
The story follows the character of Andrew Largeman, an aspiring young actor who waits tables at a restaurant to make ends meet, and whose mother has just died. Returning home to New Jersey – the “Garden State” – he is forced to confront his estranged father, all the while seeking escapism amidst a plethora of drugs, prescribed and otherwise, with childhood friends that never grew up.
After his father sends him to the doctor to get yet more medication for the headaches he’s been having, Andrew bumps into Sam, a girl who is listening to music in the doctor’s waiting area. Sam’s a pathological liar with plenty of issues of her own, but it doesn’t take long for them to realise that they are kindred spirits. Can they, together, somehow make sense of the world around them?
“Such was that happy garden-state, while man there walked without a mate.”
Named ‘Garden State’ not only because of its New Jersey setting, but also in reference to the poem by Andrew Marvell which comments on the limbo one can find oneself in without a partner, Braff’s debut writing/directing/acting feature is undoubtedly informed by his own directionless sentiments – written during his college years, Braff found himself waiting tables at a restaurant, feeling like he was just another aspiring actor with few friends, no life-partner, and memories of a New Jersey family home that no longer really existed.
Certainly all of those themes have carried across into the movie, which take a poignant – wise beyond its years – look at a younger generation who are struggling with no real sense of purpose; sense of belonging. The easy answer appears to be: get lost in the haze of drugs – whether they be of the recreational variety or, as is also the case here, those imposed upon Andrew by his own father, who thinks that he harbours repressed angst over his mother’s death, and has been medicating him ever since he was a child.
There’s some real tragedy on offer here; some very serious issues dealt with, and yet Braff manages them within the constraints of what could easily be dismissed as just another fluffy, lightweight twentysomethings romantic drama. It is anything but.
Known best for his front-running role in the TV series, Scrubs – a show which I grew tired of long before it reached its ninth-season conclusion, and which is the sole reason why we haven’t seen any more features from him, as he was locked into an 8-year contract – Braff brings more subtlety and nuance to his character here than he did in 100 episodes of Scrubs (although that didn’t exactly demand it), and certainly showed audiences a different side to his talents: whilst still the same, likeable, witty, charming twentysomething guy fans all know and love, he brings to the fore a very different side to this persona – introspection, despondency, loneliness, escapism and a lack of purpose – and, with it, heralds the truth that escapes so many vapid romcoms.
After having seen her in Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls (a film cited as being part-inspiration for Garden State), Braff wanted Natalie Portman to be the love interest in the story (I don’t blame him!), and it would seem that she was the perfect choice for the role. Portman has similarly always been old beyond her years – somewhat handicapped by the fact that she has that perpetually youthful look – and, right from her standout debut as Mathilde to Luc Besson’s professional assassin, Leon, she has shown a surprising amount of voracity for the art (Star Wars Prequels notwithstanding). Whether it’s Heat or Closer; whether she’s on Oscar-winning form for films like Black Swan or providing a suitable heroine for Marvel’s superhero Thor, Portman has remained a bankable commodity, clearly more than just desperately cute looks and a smile to die for.
Garden State was an early, prime, example of this – within moments she’s won your heart over with that trademark gleeful smile, and yet her character is so much deeper, darker and more three-dimensional than you would ever expect from a standard rom-com. Hold on a second – that’s because this isn’t a standard rom-com!
“I used to think all that stuff mattered, that it would only matter if I could put my name on it, that somehow that would prove that I had lived, that I was here, but you know what? That’s all ego. None of that really matters. If, at the end of the day, I get to be with this person right here then that’s all I need. Just having felt that, if I die in an hour, I know I’ve lived.”
Ian Holm (Alien, The Lord of the Rings) also provides competent support as the estranged, almost emotionless father; and Peter Sarsgaard (Knight and Day, Green Lantern) ably plays one of the childhood friends that has never grown up, and there are a number of other familiar faces that pad out this warm but striking little tale, but the film is owned by Braff and Portman, who circle around each other blissfully, exchanging witty remarks and revealing comments, their entire dialogue laced with undeniably potent chemistry.
In many respects as much a tragedy as a romantic comedy, the drama in this piece never feels forced or melodramatic, instead naturally developing across the narrative through a series of subtle interjections along the way. We learn about the characters through the things they let slip, rather than through direct exposition, and – perhaps because the story was so personal to Braff – it feels truly organic, as if these were your friends; this was your history; this was your burgeoning relationship.
Hanging out with Braff and Portman, you feel at home once more, getting involved with their woes, feeling for their tragedies, and yearning for them to get through the issues that they both clearly have and work out a way to be together; to survive the chaos of life – as represented by the magical mystery odyssey that they go on – but to survive it together. Which is what Braff clearly wanted to say with the whole piece: that life is so much better together; that it has so much more meaning – in anybody else’s hands; in any other film, this would have been pure cliché, yet here it is developed and delivered in such a quaint, quirky, amusing, poignant and understated way that you can’t help but absorb the sentiment, and fall for these two and their crazy little nascaent relationship.
“I don’t want to waste another moment of my life without you in it.”
For a directorial debut Braff also works a surprising amount of magic, throwing in some surprisingly ambitious moments and symbolic touches; some purposeful montages and emotionally sombre shots – but it’s easy to overlook both his fine eye for detail and his own innate style when you’re too busy getting swept up by one of the most perfectly-chosen, perfectly-suited soundtracks ever crafted for a movie. Song after song we get an array of fantastic pieces, each one strikingly different from the last and yet utterly compatible as part of the fluid whole; blending together to form a stunning companion-piece to the narrative, so good indeed that it would be impossible to separate the two.
It’s no wonder that the soundtrack – hand-chosen by Braff as being the songs that would most describe his life at the time of writing the movie – would win him a Grammy Award, it plays a huge part in the greatness of Garden State. From the superb tracks by The Shins, Coldplay and Zero 7, to the seminal “Let Go” by Frou Frou, Portman’s character is quite right in stating that this music will change your life. In fact, I dare you to resist the urge to go out and pick up this soundtrack immediately after finishing the movie – it’s deserves a place in your music collection as much as this film has earned a place in your film collection.
I can’t recommend this movie enough. It will surprise you at every turn, making you at once laugh and cry; smile and reminiscence; hope and wonder – it’s so full of fun and frivolity that you lose yourself repeatedly, making the frequent emotional blows feel all the more hard-hitting, reminding you that this is life, but also showing you just why we endure it. It’s insightful to the core, and will likely leave you – long after the credits have rolled – feeling like you’ve just watched the story of somebody’s life; the soundtrack to somebody’s life, affording you a great deal of perception into your own experiences and your own relationships. How often do you come across that kind of touching relevance in a movie these days?
“F*ck, this hurts so much.”
“I know it hurts. But it’s life, and it’s real. And sometimes it f*cking hurts, but it’s life, and it’s sorta’ all we have.”
Driven by dual lead performances that bask in the kind of genuine chemistry that only further convinces you that this is true love, yet depicting relationships in a real, convincing way that oftentimes smacks of brutal honesty; enhanced by some quirky, stylish direction and a stellar, powerfully moving soundtrack; and packed to the hilt with subtle observations and poignant commentary on life, Garden State is a timeless little gem, an endearing, enduring indie drama that remains fresh, honest, touching and perceptive. A true romance.
If you haven’t yet seen this movie then it’s about time you did. Highly recommended.
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