The year was 2004. I was a freshman in high school, and I was on the cusp of discovering my passion for cinema. I ditched class on a Tuesday and snuck into the local theater to see Zach Braff’s Garden State with a friend, not knowing that this would change my life and convert me to the church of cinephilia.
For those who haven’t seen the film, it’s about Andrew Largeman (Braff), an emotionally detached 26 year old who returns to his hometown of New Jersey for his mother’s funeral after living in Los Angeles for ten years. Andrew intends to visit for a few a days, and in the process reconnects with old friends, struggles to resolve issues with his distant father (Ian Holm), and forms a romantic relationship with Sam (Portman), a local young woman with problems 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. Despite the film’s hipster soundtrack and depiction of twenty-something malaise, it ultimately embraces the human spirit and all of the sentimentality that goes with it. In other words, it’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) set to the Shins.
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 and plot structure, I tended to overlook lazy filmmaking as long as I connected with the characters and cared about the story.
As a result, 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 was intruding upon a moment of rare intimacy, and wanted nothing more than to remain there for the rest of my life.
Critic Nathan Rabin of The A.V> Club has negatively characterized Sam as a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, which according to him “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.” Only in today’s cynical culture, where critics are being trained to sneer, are reductive statements like this taken seriously, as if there’s something wrong with a man finding strength in a woman, and a filmmaker portraying this without any irony.
Like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy, Garden State is a fairy tale of first love. The point of the film isn’t whether viewers have met anyone like Sam, but that they could. In many ways, Sam symbolizes the hope of rejuvenation for a generation of lost souls that was raised on Prozac.
The film 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 will, ideally, one day take its place as one of the all-time great romantic speeches. What follows are the most important 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?”
The sentimentality of Garden State is quite rare for an independent film. Typically, indie coming-of-age romances such as Like Crazy (2011), The Spectacular Now (2013), and Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) are more inclined to conclude on bleak notes of disappointment and disillusionment, which suggests that Garden State has more in common with Hollywood’s adaptations of Nicholas Sparks novels than anything else.
In her essay “Why Nicholas Sparks Matters Now”, Anne Helen Petersen questions why these unabashedly sentimental stories continue to endure in popular culture. According to Petersen, it’s because they “provide the sort of elusive yet necessary reassurance that a better, safer, more communicative, and compassionate world is one worth striving for”.
If, as Petersen suggests, the adoration of the Sparks male, like Ryan Gosling’s Noah in The Notebook (2004), stems from a female audience’s “frustration and fear of misogynist male culture,” then the adoration of Sam, or the so-called Manic Pixie Dream Girl, stems from a male audience’s frustration and fear of a specific kind of feminist culture, in which men are automatically assumed to be misogynists.
It’s as if the films are making a statement against our culture’s stereotypes of both genders with their portrayals of the opposite sex. The Notebook, which is generally marketed to a female audience, aims to reassure women that all men aren’t misogynists, and that some, like Noah, are kind-hearted and harmless. Garden State, which is generally marketed to a male audience that identifies with Andrew, aims to reassure men that all women aren’t male-bashing harpies, and that some, like Sam, are loving and compassionate.
I view these optimistic depictions of the opposite sex favorably, and believe that any criticisms against these characterizations for being too “unrealistic” or “idealistic” undermine their significant contribution to popular culture. They exist to combat negative stereotypes, and remain a high standard to which real-life partners can be compared. They remind each gender that the other isn’t the enemy, and they promote peaceful coexistence between the sexes.
Therefore, contrary to the negative implications of Rabin’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, Portman’s Sam is actually one of the more positive cinematic representations of women in the 21st century. She’s kind, opinionated, compassionate, cares about her family, and assumes the best in everyone she meets. It’s no wonder that most filmgoers fell in love with her.
Ultimately, the most meaningful movie romances forgo verisimilitude for melodrama, and instead of depicting things as they are, they depict things as they could, and perhaps should, be. Garden State is such a film, and it impacted so many of us in 2004 because it made us feel something in a way that few movies have been able to do before or since.