My name is BJ and some of my favorite movies are not considered “classics.” In fact, some people really disagree with me on my favorites. But in how I view film, one’s “favorites” should be a deeply personal thing. I want my favorite films to give an insight into who I am as a person. In this series, I will attempt to articulate why I have such a deep and profound love for these unlikely favorites. These are my “Moving Pictures.”
The first film to feature in this series was a no-brainer. When I’m asked what my favorite film of all time is (an invariably ridiculous and impossible to answer question), for the last 15 years my default answer has been “Garden State.” Cue a blank stare from everyone but the most ardent movie fans. “Garden State” is Zach Braff’s 2004 indie hit about depression, life, and a lot of the questions that come with entering your twenties. Braff not only took on the lead role as Andrew Largeman, but he also penned the script, and created the entire thing as his directorial debut. If nothing else, that immense workload is worthy of your respect.
“I just am so thrilled that so many of you are connecting to the story. First and foremost I always hoped people would have a good laugh and hopefully empathize with the characters. But the fact that so many of you are relating to the themes and subject matter is so comforting to me, because for many years when I was feeling all these feelings, I felt incredibly alone; I couldn't find many people who were "in it"... going through the mental puberty that your twenties can be”
-Zach Braff (via his Garden State blog), 08.17.04
Sometimes a piece of art hits you at the exact right moment in life. It almost feels like a godsend - like this one thing was created for me, in this moment. It can be a song, or painting, or even a film. Such is the case for “Garden State.” In 2004, I was struggling at the ripe old age of nineteen. I didn’t know why I was so down, because for the prior years, I was a generally happy-go-lucky kid. Nothing traumatic ever happened to me. I never had to face any significant hardship. However in those post high school years, depression hit and I didn’t quite know how to deal with it. So, as many people do, I isolated myself. I withdrew into myself as a means of figuring out what was going on and how to go about getting past it. I wasn’t so happy-go-lucky anymore.
”Garden State” is somewhat of a coming-of-age story, although not in the traditional sense. The film isn’t so much about growing older, but rather feeling again. The movie is about Andrew Largeman - a man in his early twenties, who returns home to New Jersey for the funeral of his mother. “Large” is heavily medicated, and it is quickly apparent that he is essentially sleepwalking through life without much connection. That’s about the extent of detail about the plot that I’m going to get into, because you should just go watch the film yourself.
Part One: Cynicism and discarding the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”
Let’s dispense with the vitriol right away. I hate cynicism. There is not a bigger waste of time than being cynical, or attempting to let your cynicism in some way dictate to or discourage someone else. It saddens me, but in the last fifteen years, the level of cynicism towards “Garden State” has reached a disgusting level. In 2004, the film was heavily praised. “Garden State” was nominated for the grand jury prize at Sundance, with numerous and varied award considerations following. In 2019, scrolling for five minutes through Letterboxd reviews of the film is enough to make me want to disconnect from the internet for a few years.
There’s this disgusting high school mentality that I’ve noticed lately where people assimilate to a trendy opinion, to appear “in the know” or somehow more “hip” than others. It’s basically bullying others into an opinion, or mindlessly walking with the crowd like a good little lemming. It’s one thing to watch the film, and not like it for one reason or another. It’s another to allow trends dictate personal opinion. It’s dishonest. Now I could be wrong, but some of the worst Letterboxd reviews I have read fall right into this category. The phrasing. The buzzwords. The snark. To me, these qualities instantly make a review null-in-void.
There’s a phrase that has long troubled me called the “manic pixie dream girl.” For those who don’t know, the phrase was coined by critic Nathan Rabin in response to Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film “Elizabthtown.” He describes it as such: “(the manic pixie dream girl) exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” The phrase was created in 2005, a full year after “Garden State”, but as humans are apt to do, they began applying the label to many great past films.
My trouble with the phrase is that it quickly became transparently sexist. The writer creates their ideal world, yes, but to slap these female characters with this label is to quickly and unfairly undermine them, the actresses performances, and what service they have to the greater whole of their respective films. Newsflash: quirky girls exist. I’ve been lucky enough to have known a number of them in my life. Kind girls exist. Girls who have immensly helped my life, motivated me, and shined a light in very dark and troubling places - they exist! So why can’t there be movie characterizations of these people? In life, there are many types of people, with many different actions, thoughts, and feelings. One writer decided to label the whole group and that labeling inherently minimizes the work put into bringing these characters to life.
While the label was applied to Natalie Portman’s wonderful performance of Sam in “Garden State”, one only needs to view to the film to see that it isn’t handled that way. Sam has her own quirks, characteristics, and reasons for existing in this movie. She helps Large, yes. But she is more than that.
By the way, Nathan Rabin retracted the phrase years ago after many actresses and industry types called the phrase and its implications “sexist.” It still remains a phrase that is still so carelessly thrown around in many reviews of this film.
Part Two: A Natural Eye
After my first few viewings of “Garden State”, I remember reading a number of reviews to see if anyone else had the same cathartic experience that I had. As stated before, the reactions were overwhelmingly positive. For whatever reason, the one nugget that still remains preserved in my brain after all of these years is just how many people commented on what a fantastic eye Zach Braff had cultivated. It seemed like a new visionary had arrived. Back then, I wasn’t so concerned with the “direction” of a film. To tell you the truth, I probably couldn’t have told you what the job of the director was other than to say “action!” But I do remember thinking, in my limited film knowledge, “this movie looks really cool.” Looking back on it now as a “cinephile” (whatever that means), Zach Braff is criminally underrated as a director. It is beyond me as to why he has only directed two other features in the years since. Take a look at some of these breathtaking shots below. They are warm, intimate, grand, lonely, and intriguing.
Part Three: The Music
This is the most obvious legacy of this film, I think. At least for most people it is. Scroll through any modern review and it will inevitably sing the praises of the “Garden State” soundtrack - and rightfully so. Zach Braff won a Grammy for his work, which he insists was essentially forming a mixtape of songs he listened to at the time. By his own admission, he never expected he would be able to get the rights to the songs he chose. But thankfully everything worked out, because this soundtrack is one of the all-time greats. I may say a lot of things that can be argued in this article, but I don’t really think that is one of them. It’s common knowledge and accepted fact.
My music taste, like my taste in film, and my taste in everything...and general personality come to think of it, was immature at this time period. “Unformed” may be a better term. The extent of my musical taste was essentially whatever rock song was popular at the time - never mind the fact that they all pretty much sounded the same. I came to the “Garden State” soundtrack before I ever saw the film. I have no idea what drew me to purchasing the CD. Perhaps the cover art? On first listen, I thought it was weird. I was hearing things that I had not been exposed to before. I didn’t care for it. However, there was an odd intangible that brought me back for another listen. And then another. Then another. Before I knew it, the soundtrack had formed my taste in music - the same preferences that I hold dear to this day. I would seek out the back catalogues of nearly every artist featured on the soundtrack. Then I would check out associated acts.
I remember the commercial for the soundtrack. A quick view of YouTube sadly yielded no results, but the one thing I distinctly remember from it was the pseudo-tag line for the album: “Music for whatever state you’re in.” The state I was in was depression, and this album would be the soundtrack to me finding my way back, and learning to accept things about myself that were not common amongst my friends and family. It was okay for me to just be me, and not try to fit into anyone’s idea of what I should be. I was asking myself larger questions about who I was, and who I wanted to be. Depression isolates - but this art that was speaking to me on every level was showing me that it was okay to reconnect, as the realest version of myself. This was the turning point in “finding myself”, no matter how cliche that idea has become. For the first time, I became me.
Part Four: The Legacy
Movies can be a magical thing. They can entertain. They can heal. They can provide ideas that move society forward. They can do something as simple as providing an escape for two hours, so life doesn’t seem all that bad. I will always view “Garden State” as a life preserver. Not only did it entertain me then, and for many years to come - it shaped a boy who didn’t know who he was. It completely reformed my taste in music. It made me ask bigger questions in my life. And most of all, it showed me that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to struggle. It’s okay for forgive yourself, and it’s okay to feel. Whatever that feeling may be. “Garden State” was a hand outstretched to a boy surrounded in the darkness of depression. The bravery, honesty, and “heart on your sleeve” approach to the writing, direction, and acting of this film opened my eyes and made me feel not so alone. Revisiting the movie in preparation for this article was like catching up with old friends. A warm blanket that has always been there for me. Are there moments that may be too quirky or cute for some people’s taste? Sure. But not for mine. The writer crafts their ideal world, and I will never begrudge someone for writing a kind-hearted world full of interesting people.
For me, “Garden State” is more than a movie. It is a part of me. So don’t let the trendy hatred fool you - for this, or any film. Make up your own mind. Going with popular opinion could very well rob you of your own life preserver - and that would be tragic.
Until next time...