27 May 2009

Garden State

Two weeks ago, David and I went to see the Shins, at the Wellmont Theater. It was a nice show, good, not great--certain performers, namely my beloved, lamented Sleater Kinney, Rufus Wainwright and Ted Leo-- have set the bar so high for me in terms of what I expect in live music. I am thrilled to have this beautiful theater right in my town; while I love going to New York to see a show, the Wellmont is so convenient. What a boon for parents of young children; you get to see a live show, cut down on child care expenses, and still be in bed by 11!

I'd never seen the Shins perform, and it is always exciting to see a band whose music you adore play live. They came out on the stage, a sweet, nerdy bunch, dressed in pants and button down Oxfords. As I sized the band up, my first thought was, "Do you work with my husband?" David said as he looked them over, he was was asking himself, what is each of the Shins favorite programming language? James Mercer played his guitar with slightly stooped shoulders, and the yoga teacher in me wanted to rush the stage and give him an adjustment.

But this post is not about the Shins.

As soon as they started to play, I immediately thought of the scene in the movie Garden State, where Natalie Portman's character meets Zach Braff's in the waiting room of a doctor's office. She is listening to music on headphones, and moves closer to engage him in conversation. When he asks what she is listening to, it is the Shins. She offers him her headphones, saying you've got to hear this song, it will change your life.

As much as I enjoy it, I can't say that any of the Shins music has changed my life, but Garden State may have. It is one of my favorite movies. I loved it so much that, after seeing it by myself, I dragged David back to see it with me (something I'd forgotten). I think the only other movie I have ever done that with is The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

It had been a few years since I saw Garden State, so I rented it last weekend. (Yes, rented. Can you believe I don't have a Netflix queue?) I love everything about this film: the soundtrack, (which I actually bought, something I never do. Although I did buy the Seu Jorge tracks from The Life Aquatic; who knew acoustic David Bowie sung in Portuguese could be so beautiful?), the characters, the storyline, and the performances.

Garden State caught me completely off-guard the first time I saw it. I was expecting a small, sweet coming of age story, but for me, it was much more.

It is about Andrew Largeman (Braff), a struggling actor living in LA who is summoned home to New Jersey to attend his mother's funeral. An only child, he is depressed, estranged from his family, and so emotionally numb that he has difficulty connecting with anyone. His father, a psychiatrist, has been plying him with psychoactive drugs since adolescence. During the course of his visit home, he reconnects with an old friend, Mark, played by Peter Sarsgaard, and unexpectedly meets, and falls in love with, Sam (Portman). And then three of them go on something of a quest, that takes them to a houseboat at the bottom of a quarry in Newark (that I don't think actually exists; we Googled it).

Setting aside the fact that I find Zach Braff an adorable, nebbishy Jew--a look I'm partial to, having grown up with many such people; I could have gone to summer camp with Braff--I found his performance as a sad, disconnected man to be subtle, tender, and convincing.

Then, there is Peter Saarsgard, he with the bedroom eyes, an actor I find mesmerizing. (Can you tell I have a crush on him?) I don't know how he did that thing with his eyes in this movie where he looks perpetually stoned. Either he was smoking a hell of a lot of weed, or he is one great actor. Come to think of it, were he perpetually high when this movie was filmed, that would be all the more evidence of his talent.

Natalie Portman, as Sam, skirts the line between mania and normalcy, staying just shy of crazy to make her believable. She is an epileptic with a lying tic, only, she can't go too long without confessing her lies. Her character is exuberant, with an underlying current of sadness, and it could have easily been an over the top performance, but she keeps it in check to so that Sam remains empathetic, not annoying.

But what I love most about this movie, and what took me by surprise, was how much it felt not like a movie, but a dramatization of a certain time in my life, namely, my twenties. While the particulars are different, the emotional tenor was very much the same. The sad family, complete with a depressed mother, an angry father full of recriminations but unable to accept any responsibility that despite his best intentions, things have not turned out as he would have liked.

It is about the primal need for a family; what it means to be one, and what we do to anesthetize the pain when we can't face up to the fact that the one we were born into didn't pan out the way we hoped. It is about becoming an adult, the time when we become brave enough to confront this failure, and how we go about mending the wound, and ultimately, constructing a family of our own making.

But most of all, it is about two people who feel an immediate connection, a sense of comfort and trust in each other's presence. They understand each other intuitively, and fall in love easily.

Garden State reinforced two very important life lessons, that took me most of my twenties to learn. When life is hard, and sad, you have a choice as whether to laugh or cry, and sometimes, laughter is the better option. But when you can't laugh, it is better to sit comfortably in your place of sadness, and simply be, with honesty and integrity, knowing that in time, it will pass. I keep these lessons close to heart, and try to impart them, as best I can, to my children.

Every time I see Garden State, it leaves me emotionally wrecked. It makes me laugh, and cry, sometimes at the same time. When the film was over, I turned to David, sniffling, and told him that I love it because it describes exactly what my life felt like before I met him, and how the spark of love that he gave me made me aware that the promise of something better was possible for me. Meeting him made me optimistic for the first time in a long, long time. Even though I was only beginning to have an understanding of how sad and fucked up I was, I knew that in him I had found my bashert; my destiny, my soul mate, and that no matter how dark things became (and they did indeed become much darker for me before I began to heal), I had found someone who wanted to hold me in the darkness, for as long as I needed to be there.


  1. thank you for sharing so sweetly.

    i agree with your assessment of the movie. i think the take away from it was that the best way to heal is through living and feeling no matter how extreme that 'feeling' seems to become.