When I was a kid, my parents and I watched a special on musical theater films. One of the interviewees stated a fact that gets repeated in my household a lot, usually as a joke: “In musical theater, one can measure the eras as ‘Before Showboat‘ and ‘After Showboat.’” For me, I can personally measure my life as “Before Garden State” and “After Garden State.”
That isn’t to say that Garden State is my favorite movie, or in the top 10, or even the top 100. The last time I saw it, I didn’t enjoy watching it (other than the nostalgic feeling that yeah, I have been watching this movie for a decade, with different people, in different cities, through different lenses). But the movie has made such a deep impact on my life, affecting the choices I made in high school all the way up to now, currently, at the age of twenty-four, that it is impossible to look at the journey I’ve taken and the person I’ve become without taking this film into account.
I saw Garden State in 9th grade. My mom drove me and my Scrubs-watching buddy Leda to a movie theater in another town—that’s how important this movie was to me. My mom took me to another county to see it, because it wasn’t playing in mine (my hometown’s movie theater was a six-screened dump in a dying mall that only played the latest Adam Sandler fodder). I felt like I was watching the movie in slow-motion; I absorbed every second, every nuance, every little joke. Natalie Portman, at the time simply known to me as “Padme,” became, in two hours, my ultimate aspiration. I felt like I was growing in that dark, less-than-half-filled theater. I had never seen a film so deeply sad, about a character who felt such an intense longing. The idea of being alienated from your hometown and childhood friends was a strange one to me, but it struck a chord. The soundtrack pulsed through my veins, beckoning me to become a more alternative and better version of myself.
It’s funny, or ironic, that a movie in which the line “You gotta hear this one song, it’ll change your life I swear” is stated without any sense of sarcasm becomes a movie that I see as a pivotal point in my life. The transition between 8th and 9th grade—when your opportunities expand, and you get to choose your schedule and who you sit next to, and you have actual lockers—is a capricious moment. That, coupled with this film that seemed so raw and emotional and funny and tender, made me feel as if—well, the best way to describe it is like in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when they’re sneaking, disguised, into Gringott’s, but they go through the charmed waterfall and their true faces are revealed. That’s how I felt. Garden State was a watershed moment, exposing the true emotions that I felt—or, at least, wanted to feel—at the age of fifteen. Physically, the movie drove me to overhaul my entire music library (then, fill it completely with The Shins and other Sub Pop Record label buddies) and wear large headphones rather than earbuds with my brand new iPod. Natalie Portman-as-Sam became my avatar on my livejournal, and “good luck exploring the infinite abyss” became my go-to quote for all occasions. I watched the movie during turbulent times. When I felt sad, I reminded myself that not only was turmoil important, it was necessary. I should feel disengaged from the world and my peers, because that’s how Andrew Largeman felt; I needed to experience this low to reach the high at the end of the film. I was almost excited for the next decade of my life, as it would be full of deep emotional gloominess, only to be rescued by a cute boy with equally large headphones and a matching taste in music.
This dragged on through the first year of college. It wasn’t until I was twenty, when I became active in internet feminist dialogues, that I was introduced to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I felt as if my Simon and Garfunkel record skipped and the needle jumped off. Everything stopped and I was in disarray. Concepts I’ve never thought about, like “why does Sam exist solely to comfort Andrew, and why does she only start to feel better when he sees a light at the end of the tunnel?” had me confused and angry at myself. Why did I feel so much love towards a movie that was now betraying me? Why was I so blinded by it that I didn’t see all of the problems that existed? One afternoon, homesick beyond belief, I crawled into bed and put it on. Suddenly, I no longer saw myself reflected in the story. Despite the bleak tone and the serious subject matter, everyone seemed like a caricature of actual humans. No one had real conversations; the one liners I enjoyed when I was fifteen began to sound grating to me, as I longed for true discussions about emotional pain. I didn’t want to hear pipe-y lines about nonsense like being in “it,” whatever that means, and people brooding about their unhappy childhood, and how they’re now unhappy in their adulthood, because they have no real Home. “Get over it!!!,” I wanted to shout. Secretly, though, I felt worried—these subjects were things I wondered about as well. Instead of feeling consoled by seeing myself on the screen, I was disgusted. “I’m not like them,” I told myself, only because it’s what I needed to hear. By the end, I felt as though my security blanket suddenly flew out the window of the car, leaving me longing, as Andrew puts it in the film, “for a place that doesn’t even exist.” And that made me sad.
I don’t really have a concluding thought. Now, I’m twenty-four and unemployed, living in Los Angeles. I do jobs I don’t want to do to pay the bills, but I’m not fulfilling my dreams or my life. I don’t see a path towards happiness or fulfillment, and feel disenfranchised by most of the people around me. My life is quite parallel to Andrew’s life at the beginning of the film. Oddly enough, I’m closer to Andrew, mentally, than I was ten years ago; today, however, I feel much more obliged to be active against battling these demons. I romanticized the depression that Andrew had, saw it as something that every great artist must go through. As a teenager, Garden State gave me false hope about my future—dreary, overcast days of sadness, only to be pulled out by some deep talks in front of a fire with a person I’m magnetically drawn to. As an adult, the reality of life has soured the taste of Garden State and it’s perfectly imperfect depression-to-actualization chain of events. Finding myself in the reality of living the life of Andrew Largeman has made me realize that I’ll do anything to fight my way out of it.
This piece originally appeared in issue #4 of Filmme Fatales.