“You know that point in your life when you realize the house you grew up in isn’t really your home anymore? All of a sudden even though you have some place where you put your shit, that idea of home is gone.” ~ ‘Garden State’
When I was a freshman in high school, I ditched class on a Tuesday and snuck into the local theater to see Zach Braff’s Garden State (2004), not knowing that this cinematic experience would change my life.
Andrew Largeman (Braff), an emotionally stunted 26-year-old who returns to his hometown of New Jersey for his mother’s funeral after struggling to be an actor in Los Angeles for ten years, seemed like a stand in for my generation. Aimless and alone, Andrew embodied my existential angst like no one else.
Andrew intends to visit his family for a few days, and in the process reconnects with old friends, tries to resolve issues with his distant father (Ian Holm), and forms a romantic relationship with Sam (Natalie Portman), a local young woman with anxieties of her own.
If this sounds like one of those movies where characters will express bottled up feelings and reveal long-concealed truths, it’s because it is. Don’t be fooled by the hipster soundtrack. Garden State wholeheartedly embraces the human spirit.
I religiously listened to the soundtrack throughout high school, but it was the film’s emotional honesty that had the most profound effect on me. This was pre-film school days, and while I was vaguely aware of shot composition, I tended to overlook lazy filmmaking as long as I connected with the characters and cared about the story.
I gravitated toward the relationship between Andrew and Sam at a time when I had yet to experience the wonders of first love. When they meet in the doctor’s office and she begins to babble about her appreciation for his acting abilities (“If there was a retarded Oscar, you would win, hands down, kick his ass!”), I was immediately charmed. When she invites him into her room and ruins the moment with her awkwardness (“We’re not gonna make out or anything, okay?”), I identified with being flawed in situations that called for perfection. And when she consoles him after he breaks down in the bathtub (“I know it hurts. That’s life. If nothing else, It’s life. It’s real, and sometimes it fuckin’ hurts, but it’s sort of all we have”), I felt as if I, too, was being comforted, and wanted nothing more than to stay in that scene for the rest of my life.
Like Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, Garden State is a fairy tale of first love. If you discover it early enough, it will define your entire perspective on romance and relationships. It doesn’t matter if we have met anyone like Sam, but that we could. Sam symbolizes the hope of rejuvenation for lost souls raised on self-help. The message of the film, that real saving comes from being with another person, bears repeating in this dubious age of DIY wellness. You can download all the apps and go on as many silent retreats as you wish, but if you don’t have someone to share your life with, you’re not going to fill the empty void within.
Garden State concludes with a scene that unapologetically demonstrates its sentimental spirit. Andrew is heading back to Los Angeles and kisses Sam goodbye at the airport. Frou Frou’s “Let Go” kicks into the soundtrack, and we observe Andrew, expressionless, sitting on an airplane. The film cuts to Sam crying alone in a pay phone, and then Andrew reappears and decides to stay in New Jersey.
Andrew’s explanation equals Humphrey Bogart’s classic monologue at the end of Casablanca (1942), and is one of the all-time great romantic speeches. What follows are the most significant lines:
“This is it. This is life. And I’m in love with you. I think that’s the only thing I’ve ever really been sure of in my entire life. And I’m really messed up right now, and I got a whole lot of stuff I have to work out, but I don’t want to waste any more of my life without you in it. And I think I can do this. I mean, I want to. I have to, right?”
If you’re not swooning now, there’s no saving your soul.
Sam is my first movie love. She’s sweet, selfless, cares about her family, and assumes the best in everyone she meets. She set the standard to which every girl I would encounter must reach, and was the cause of much disappointment when I discovered that every girl fell short of reaching that standard. No one else was like her, and it didn’t dawn on me at the time that the reason why the real-life girls couldn’t compare was because she was a male artist’s romanticized vision of how a girlfriend should be. At age 14, Sam seemed to be an ideal worth striving for, Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl trope be damned.
I‘m less naive because I’ve lived more. Experience has taught me that relationships are complex, people are rarely selfless, and the big romantic speech at the end of the movie is never reciprocated in real life. Any grand romantic gesture I’ve made was met not with a warm embrace, but stone cold rejection. “You’ve seen one too many movies,” they’d say, before politely showing me to the door.
Still, despite these cruel reality checks, the constant striving for the ideal continues to consume me. I know instinctively that most relationships in the real world will not last, despite my most determined efforts to demonstrate otherwise, and my delusional belief that this one will be different. It’s not, and it never is. But the hope for another ending, a happier ending, persists.
Ultimately, the most meaningful movie romances forgo realism for melodrama, and instead of depicting relationships as they are, they depict relationships as they could be. Garden State is such a romance, and it impacted so many of us in 2004 because it made us believe in the transformative power of love.
Decades later, I understand that this kind of love can only be actualized in cinema. In the real world, it remains an unattainable dream.
The article has been modified from a previous version published in PopMatters.