Smack in the middle of Zach Braff's success on the show Scrubs and a year before he voiced Chicken Little, he ventured into the the world of directing and screenwriting by writing, directing, and starring in a 2004 film called Garden State. The film touched on a lot of sensitive and personal issues such as death, depression, indifference, honesty, and love. It received overall positive reviews and was even nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, as well as being often considered by many to be one of Natalie Portman's best performances, somehow it remains under the radar to this day. After 11 years it's still an indie gem that will resonate strongly with you if you're ever lucky enough to find it.
The film stars Braff as Andrew Largeman, a depressed 26-year old who is called back to his hometown in New Jersey after his mother dies. Being back for the first time in nearly a decade throws the heavily medicated protagonist in the mix with old friends, estranged family members, and a newly befriended quirky, pathological liar named Samantha (Natalie Portman).
Almost immediately you're introduced to the level of depression and pain that Andrew is in on an hourly basis as well as being clued into how numb he has become to life in general. Living in Los Angeles, he is a semi-successful television actor who plays the "retarded quarterback" as an escape of being himself. What better thing to do than pretend to be someone else? There is essentially no reaction to his every day life or to the news that his mother has passed. You quickly learn that the root of it is Andrew's psychiatrist father who has not only kept him medicated since childhood, but has convinced Andrew that his mother being a paraplegic was his fault.
Upon his return, Andrew begins to experiment with himself as he removes himself from his cabinet of medications to see if his physical ailments are in his head or a side effect. He reunites with childhood friends Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and Jesse (Armando Riesco) and is thrown into the local culture he hasn't been exposed to since moving away nearly a decade ago. He also notices that he is beginning to take life and its emotions in and it seems more confusing than anything else.
On the recommendation of his father, Andrew seeks the assistance of a local neurologist where a chance waiting room encounter with an eccentric girl named Samantha changes the course of his remaining visit. Samantha, played by Natalie Portman, is essentially everything that Andrew is not. She is flooded with emotion, sometimes annoyingly so, but Andrew is very drawn to it because she is everything that he's never been capable of being. You quickly learn that part of Sam's eccentric behavior is due to her struggling with being a pathological liar and fairly newly diagnosed epileptic.
The beauty of Samantha is how fearless she is of who she has turned into. However, it also shows the different sides of pain and depression that anyone can feel no matter how medicated they are or not. Prior to the epilepsy, she had dreams of being a figure skater and no doubt didn't picture herself still living at home in New Jersey. This runs parallel to Andrew's depression of feeling guilty about his mother's condition and being kept medically numb to life as a result. The difference between the two is Sam's acceptance of her situation. However, you are able to feel for Sam's acceptance as it seems bittersweet. You love her but at the same time she's breaking your heart.
You slowly see Andrew's world start opening up and the more he hangs with Jesse, Mark, and Sam the more you see him realizing how much he's missed out on and how little he has to show for it. As the film goes on you see Andrew begin to realize what is really important and how the sometimes overwhelming pain of every day events is just the way life is and the people around you, although not perfect, are the outlets for getting through it. He begins opening up about why he was sent away as a child by his father, why he was so heavily medicated, and you see that reflection on who he was and who he is without his medication. His friendships and budding relationship with Sam are blooming and it is due to the fact that he has allowed himself to be vulnerable and tell people how he really feels. Are these events really his fault or was he just the scapegoat for regular, freak accidents that happen every day and could happen to anyone?
It isn't until the night before Andrew's trip winds down that he really confronts his life and realizes that sitting around waiting for things to happen doesn't get you anywhere. It doesn't develop anything and it certainly doesn't make you any happier than just living life and allowing things to happen regularly. He also comes face to face with going out on a limb not knowing what will happen or what to do about it and he is surprisingly alright with it.
What I love about Garden State is it's one of those films that makes you really reflect. When I first saw this movie I was able to relate to just about every character in some way whether it was an action, a feeling, or both. There are moments where you feel like Andrew took the words right out of your mouth while other times Sam will laugh at something and you realize, yeah that's something I would probably laugh at. Not to mention we all probably know of someone who is the Mark and Jesse of the town or neighborhood you live in.
The way Zach Braff wrote the story and the characters was brilliant. He captures the normal pain and tragedy of life while teaching us that it's alright to feel what those events make you feel like. If you don't you could find yourself sitting in a chair one day realizing you missed out on something by not feeling it or allowing yourself to experience it. Sometimes you do have to take that leap and allow yourself to live and let others live it with you because, after all, what is the alternative?