Word Document: Garden State of Mind (Textual Analysis)
Besides having an award winning soundtrack, the film Garden State (2004) was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival and retains a cult following to this day. Zach Braff, the film’s director and lead actor, based the film on his real life experiences growing up in small-town New Jersey and then being a tired Hollywood actor. With Natalie Portman playing love interest Sam and Peter Sarsgaard playing best friend Mark, this film questions what it means to be happy at the cost of sadness while exploring the polarity between society’s expectations and staying true to one’s self. While this film deals with heavy themes like depression and death, it manages to do so with an ineffable air of hope. The eccentric characters and odd situations lend a bit of fairy tale whimsy to this film’s otherwise unappealing setting. Through the guise of a quirky “dramedy,” this film argues that it is essential to do something original with one’s life, and that perhaps being okay with every aspect of one’s identity, the good and the bad, is the most original thing of all.
At the start of the film, the viewer is introduced to Andrew Largeman, an actor-slash-waiter living in Los Angeles who admits that “the only thing [he] ever liked doing” was “pretending to be someone else.” The film sets up his character as emotionless and as passive as they come. The opening scene gives the viewer a concerning glimpse into Andrew’s subconscious through a dream in which he sits, completely apathetic, in the chaos of a crashing plane. All other passengers are screaming around him as airbags descend from the ceiling and the lights flicker on and off. He wakes suddenly when his telephone screens a call from his estranged father, saying his paraplegic mother had died and the funeral was being held that Sunday. Andrew, laying in the direct center of the bed staring at the ceiling, doesn’t appear to process to the news. From all this, the viewer can discern that Andrew is removed from emotion, so far that he may be living with blunted affect, meaning he has significantly reduced intensity in emotional expression and may not react at all to circumstances that usually evoke strong feeling in others. What this opening scene originally tells the viewer about Andrew’s identity becomes pivotal in his character development throughout the film. Perhaps more visually shocking than this news and Andrew’s non-reaction is the stark white room he’s sleeping in, devoid of any furniture. As a member of US American society, Andrew lives in a consumer culture where people are encouraged to brand themselves through their belongings. Therefore, it is very odd that he owns no things at all from which the viewer can determine aspects of his identity. It is also important to note that Andrew is seen wearing only the color grey for the first half of the film. When he does wear another color, he literally blend into the wall behind him. Through these color cues, it is clear that Andrew has no personality of his own. In fact, the only interesting thing about him seems to be his medicine cabinet, which is stocked from wall to wall with perfectly organized bottles of pills. The viewer later learns that Andrew has been taking lithium and other mood stabilizers, as well as antidepressants, prescribed by his father, for the past 16 years of his life and only stopped taking them when he arrived in New Jersey. Andrew’s apparent lack of an identity and inability to attain any control over his life is distressing, yet perhaps reflects the fears of the desensitized American populace. The numbness that drugs induce is often discussed in film and on the surface, offers an imagined history of mental health issues to the viewer. The film expertly constructs the way Andrew is viewed through his inability to express his own identity.
After the funeral, he reconnects with two of his high school friends, Mark and Jesse. The former is a grave-digger who is “okay with being disappointing,” and makes money by stealing jewelry off the people he buries and return policy scams. The latter is a young millionaire after having sold the patent for his invention, “silent Velcro.” Through Andrew, Mark, and Jesse, the viewer is presented with three very different approaches to identity and the lengths people will go to mask it–one through medication, one through substance abuse, and one through material goods. These three characters are all agreeing to fit into their societally assigned roles, but are only able to regain some amount of happiness after doing something “out of character” by the film’s end. For instance, Mark is portrayed as a lowlife who acts selfishly and is only concerned about drugs and alcohol. Of course, this is what society expects of a 20-some year old who still lives with his mother and has no motivation whatsoever. But, as a parting gift for Andrew, he orchestrates a “scouting trip” of sorts to track down and retrieves Andrew’s mother’s necklace, an act that contrasts completely with the unconcerned front he put on in previous scenes. Mark’s ability to subvert his societal persona, even temporarily, gave the viewer a good look at the complexities of a side character who originally seemed to have a very obvious, singularly-faceted identity. As he wishes Andrew goodbye and good luck, Mark genuinely smiles for what seems like the first time throughout the film. That is an action that speaks for itself.
In a town where it feels like everyone is trying too hard to be someone they’re not, Sam is the exception. An epileptic and compulsive liar, Sam is almost Andrew’s antithesis. She is overflowing with emotion and can always find something about her situation to laugh about, and even though she’s a compulsive liar, she always admits her lies after she’s told them. Andrew meets her at a doctor’s office and is roped into giving her a ride home, while he quickly becomes enraptured by her upfront personality. She introduces Andrew to the idea of being original, of letting loose one’s emotions to create some noise and movement that no one had ever combined before. She demonstrates, and then tries to coax Andrew to join her by saying:
“You just witnessed a completely original moment in human history. Come on! What are you, shy? This is your one opportunity to so something that no one has ever done before and that no one will copy again throughout human existence, and if nothing else, you’ll be remembered as the one guy you ever did this! This one thing!”
Her speech does prove riveting enough to garner an “original” motion from Andrew, and from this point forward the viewer can see him finally opening up to the people around him, taking a part in his own life instead of being a mere spectator. On the trip to find his going away present, the man they meet who has the necklace (and who, strangely enough, lives with his wife and child in an old boat at the bottom of a closed-off quarry) reiterates Sam’s notions of originality, saying that he loves living in the quarry because it allows him to do “something that’s completely unique, that’s never been some before.” As they leave, Andrew wishes him luck “exploring the infinite abyss” of the quarry, to which the man replies with a knowing smile, “You too.” Inspired, Andrew climbs on top of a broken down crane and screams into the chasm, releasing his emotions in a way he most likely hasn’t done since childhood. Sam and Mark join him, and together they do something completely, rawly original. This scene represents a profound change in Andrew’s character, a step towards displaying his identity instead of hiding it. Unlike his dream in the plane, he is finally able to feel, able to scream, able to actually experience the one life he has.
At the film’s closing, Andrew is able to confront his father and forgive him for keeping him medicated since age ten. Although his father tries to explain that “all [he] ever wanted was for everyone to be happy again,” Andrew insists that it’s more important to “be okay… to feel something again, even if it’s pain.” He goes on to remind his father, and the viewer, that it is okay to allow oneself to be whatever it is they are, because this life is all there is. He then tries to leave New Jersey to go sort himself out, but realizes that he doesn’t need to get away, because everything he cares about is with Sam. In a film about originality, this scene takes the cake. Andrew throws off the romanticized notion that one has to find themselves apart from everyone else in order to be truly unique. For Andrew, a major part of his identity is now his love for Sam, and he won’t hide that away because of some stereotypical notion that his “missing piece” is out in the world somewhere. With Sam, he can feel happiness and sadness and just be okay. And, in the end, being okay with one’s identity is the most original thing of all.