Garden State ★★

Being a teenager is bizarre. At the time, it seems like the only thing that will ever matter. After, you start to see it for the awkward rite of passage that it was. You're experimenting with your sense of self for the first time. Your emotional identity is coming into focus, and yet your life seems to consist of highs and lows that fill your entire being. Often you codify these in popular music. And sometimes you make mixtapes.

It's not true for all teenagers, but one amusing side effect for many is that these initial cascades of selfhood and vivid emotion carry with them an illusion of enlightened self-possession, which can be simultaneously grandiose and oversensitive. After all, you are emerging into a new kind of adult self-definition. The first draft is bound to be a little rough. Later you look back and realize that you actually had no idea who you were, despite being so sure. Worse yet, you were probably pretty obnoxious, too. Obviously I speak from first-hand experience.

Garden State is a movie about people who are in their 20s, but they're still clinging to those concepts of self from the first flowering of their teens. It's a movie that feels very much like a first draft, a mixtape of scenes and feelings that seek to fully express one young man's emotional totality as he understands it. It moves with that exact sense of teenage self-assurance: grandiose, precious, and completely self-absorbed.

Observe what should be the climactic emotional scene of the film, between Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) and his father (a sadly underused Ian Holm). Braff, who also wrote and directed the film, delivers an unconvincing monologue meant to show him casting off the shame and guilt of his childhood mistakes, giving himself, and his emotion-phobic, scrip-happy psychiatrist father, a new lease on life and joy. Watching the film again, it was hard to ignore that Braff's delivery during this supposedly poignant moment sounds a bit like Ray Romano. That aside, the scene, despite its powerful subject matter, never really lands, because it's a movie about Braff (or Largeman, if there's a difference) unequivocally declaring things, not sharing them on equal footing. This is fair in that it's associated with his character's backstory of being shoved full of lithium and other pills from a young age in attempt to make him "happy"; after a lifetime of numbness, he is finally allowing himself to feel, cry, communicate, vent his fears and frustrations. This is a really powerful story kernel. But it's not what the movie is really about.

Instead we have a broad collection of suburban scenes anchored by a plaintive indie rock & folk soundtrack. Released in the early days of "Web 2.0", the film predates Instagram but seems to have emerged from the same desire to share a string of small life moments that, taken together, achieve some elevated beauty or self-expression. But in Braff's hands they're more like a parade of half-amusing sight gags. Motion-sensing water faucets activate one after another as Largeman exits a bathroom. He wears a shirt made from the same pattern as the wallpaper behind him. He stands on construction equipment over a quarry in heavy rain, hollering in unison with his friends as the camera pulls back to show the deep pit below. Having grown up in American suburbia, I understand the desire to find every scrap of originality and beauty in a place that seems engineered to stifle it. That led to exactly the mentality of Garden State: all these little things are beautiful, emotional, meaningful. But it's a teenager's sense of things: emotionally forceful and totally convinced, but lacking dimension and the ability to perceive itself from without.

I'm 29 now; I was 19 when Garden State came out. A decade on, it's possible for me to revisit the film with some objectivity. But at the time, Zach Braff and I seem to have been equally mature, and this film became everything to me. I was never able to watch it without 'feeling big feelings' and 'thinking big thoughts', and it helped a lot that the soundtrack seemed to have leapt out of my own stereo. Braff's fragile self is splattered across every page of the script; there seems to be no boundary between himself and the film, a porousness that I was happy to include myself in. As an adult, it's easy to see that this is a deeply self-absorbed film, shallow and obnoxious at its worst points. At its best points, it conveys a strong sense of mood and place, and there are a handful of moments that remain genuinely affecting. I still found something fundamentally cathartic about the quarry yelling scene, for one. It's also worth noting that Natalie Portman, Peter Saarsgard and Denis O'Hare really sell the hell out of awkward roles that could have been trainwrecks in the wrong hands. And that the movie's funniest line is delivered in a small, memorable appearance by a pre-fame Jim Parsons.

In a better version of this film, the director and screenwriter remain close to Largeman, but not so close that they can't tell where they end and he begins. They tighten the focus on the themes around his childhood, his mother's death, and his decaying relationship with his father. There's certainly room for a fledgling connection with a precocious young woman, but she doesn't need to be an all-solving Manic Pixie Dream Girl. And the cinematography and music direction are toned way down, allowing scenes and performances space to breathe. Essentially, I'm positing an adult version of this very teenaged film, containing the same emotional DNA. It's a quiet pleasure to reevaluate Garden State from an older perspective, given the emotional bond I had to it at a younger age. It felt like looking empathically back to a younger, less self-aware version of myself and saying: hey, look how far we've come.

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