There are movies that you see once, maybe twice, but leave an impression on you all the same. Garden State (2004) is one of them. I will not be recommending it, and you will see why as this review unfolds. There are too many aspects of it that, as I have grown in my Faith, I cannot look at and say, oh well, that is life I suppose. There is rampant drug use and sexuality in it, and I would rather avoid those subjects. If this is the case, then why did it leave an impression on me? There are surface answers, like introducing me to one of my favorite bands, Zero 7. Also, it is interesting to see some of the performers in it before (or after) they were famous for other roles. At a deeper level, though, it asks questions about our very existence that I appreciate. As I have already indicated, I get these lessons from other sources these days, and I recommend you do the same. That is the point of The Legionnaire. At the same time, it is okay to acknowledge the good within the ugly.
A title like Garden State might suggest a paradise. Instead, we start with struggling actor Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) having a nightmare where he apathetically sits through a plane crash. He is pretty much apathetic all the time, including while at his job at a Chinese restaurant where he works to make ends meet. This also includes a telephone call from his father informing him that his mother has passed away. This prompts him to fly home to the real Garden State, which is a misnomer if there ever was one. On the way from the airport, he encounters an old friend of his, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), working as a grave digger and who happens to preparing Andrew’s mother’s final resting place. Mark invites Andrew to a party after the funeral. In between, Andrew has a brief talk with his father, Gideon (Ian Holm), in which Andrew complains of headaches to his psychiatrist dad. Gideon arranges for a doctor’s appointment for his son, and says that they should talk before he returns to Los Angeles. Andrew makes it through the funeral and heads to the party, and this is where the drug use is seen the most. He takes cocaine and ecstasy, but appears just as disinterested as ever. The next morning, he goes to his appointment, and this is when he meets Sam (Natalie Portman). She is many things, including an admitted pathological liar, but he is drawn to her. This is particularly the case after she insists on playing a song for him that she has him listen to on her headphones, saying that it will change his life. Between this and the doctor telling him that the source of his headaches are the many pills he has been on for years, it is the beginning of a change for him. When he emerges for the doctor’s office, he finds Sam waiting there and offers her a ride home in the sidecar of his motorcycle. She invites him in and more is revealed about her character, such as her desire to do something completely original and the fact that she has epilepsy. He also helps her with a difficult burial of a beloved and recently deceased pet hamster. Later on, after observing Mark digging up other graves and stealing jewelry off of corpses, Andrew admits to Sam something awful that happened when he was a child. His mother had gotten angry with him over a broken dishwasher. In anger, Andrew pushed her, causing her to fall and become a paraplegic. This condition, along with concomitant alcoholism, led to her death. It was also at that point that Gideon began prescribing behavioral pills for Andrew, and the beginning of the detachment he had felt for so long from humanity. She helps convince him to no longer take the pills. This also comes with an admission that he has feelings for her. The next day, they meet back up with Mark, who says that he has a going away present for Andrew. In order to get it, though, it involves a strange sort of scavenger hunt that involves shady deals in hotels with peep holes, nitrous oxide containers, and a quarry. The quarry is watched over by a man named Albert (Denis O’Hare) and his wife. When not keeping out intruders, they also sell second-hand jewelry, which is the real reason why Mark has brought them to this desolate place. Apparently, somebody had taken Andrew’s mother’s pendant with which she was buried, and he wanted to retrieve it for him. Andrew is moved by this gesture, and by Albert’s explanation of why he and his wife have chosen the kind of life they lead. One of the first things he mentions echoes Sam’s sentiments about doing something unique. Bigger than that, though, is the fact that he gets to be with the people about whom he cares about the most. With this, Andrew and Sam share their first kiss. Then, with Mark alongside, they shout into the abyss of the quarry, which provides the promotional art usually associated with the movie. Later, Andrew finally has his talk with Gideon. During it, he says that it was not his fault what happened to his mother, that he will no longer be taking medication, but that he would like to have a better relationship with his dad. Then, it is off to the airport with Sam. Initially, he leaves Sam behind and she is heartbroken. He then has a change of heart and comes back, telling her that she is all that matters.
Hopefully, you caught the reasons why I would not recommend Garden State. Sure, the relationship that develops between Andrew and Sam is sweet, but it is marred by the casualness of the drug use. There is also the hotel scene I mentioned where one of the employees has people pay him to peek in on people having sex. This is gross, though to be fair, none of our main characters partake. Clearly, this Catholic reviewer is more concerned with loftier matters. What concerns me here is drug use of a different kind. The Catholic Church does not have a spiritual stance on the use of medicines to treat mental illness. Still, there is, perhaps, an abuse of these prescriptions. Of course, the film does not set up faith as the vehicle by which Andrew kicks this particular habit. If he had done so, that truly would have been the life changing moment that Sam references. Either way, what is going on here is healing. The Church would tell you that true healing cannot happen without a relationship with God. For me, the movie would have been more complete with this theme. Then again, that is probably wishful thinking on my part.
As I said in the introduction, I get my lessons these days from better sources than movies like Garden State. As such, what I will take from it going forward is the good music. I may not recommend this movie, but if you are in the mood for some chill music, check out Zero 7.