Thoughts, notes, observations on the everyday nonsense of American Pop Culture from one of the most not-hip people on the face of the planet...

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Defining a generation with "Garden State"

Sometimes there is a movie that just sums up a generation of Americans. Like Reality Bites and The Big Chill before it, Garden State is a movie that simply defines a certain sect of culture at a certain point in time that it’s almost scary. As a person nearly in my mid-twenties myself, I walked away from this film feeling perfectly understood. Most of us are not what we are made to be in popular films. Not all of us are constantly out to get laid or married or on some quest for self-awareness. Most of us are just getting by.

Because of this, Garden State may be the first actual surefire "classic" made in years. In the same vein as The Graduate , it explores that point of life somewhere between college and "real" adulthood that I recently found myself falling into. Writer/director/star Zach Braff (you know him from "Scrubs") seemingly plucked a moment from real life and surrounded it with eclectic images, engaging dialogue, hilarious situations, an incredible soundtrack and stunning colors.

The main character, Andrew, is a perfect representation of 90s offspring. Medicated and numb, Andrew is drifting through his mid-twenties in LA when he suddenly has to go back home to New Jersey upon the death of his mother, who he hasn't seen in nine years. Upon arriving back home, Andrew finds that many of his closest friends are in the same boat: Waiting around for their "real" lives, or at least the lives they once envisioned, to actually begin.

We see all of the events unfold through Andrew’s stunned consciousness. The very portrayal in the film’s opening scene dead-on describes the state in which any former or current antidepressant user can relate. Andrew’s numbness, his uncaring and unflinching drift through everyday turmoil, is all at once enviable and sad.

Those of us in our twenties probably represent the most (legally) medicated generation yet, so it’s stunningly appropriate to have our protagonist be like the rest of us: Taking one pill or another to bring on perfection. See Andrew has been on lithium, Prozac and Paxil since he was a kid. He simply has forgotten what it was like to feel much of anything (And if you think it’s overly dramatized, then you’ve never been on anti-depressants before).

Once home, Andrew stops taking his meds and starts to finally see the world around him, and his life, for the first time. Much like Dustin Hoffman’s quiet observations from the bottom of the pool in The Graduate , Andrew too finds himself learning what adulthood really means.

All he has to do is look at his friends, who each seem to represent a different person everyone in their twenties knows. There’s Mark, a gravedigger who lives with (and gets high with) his mother in near-squalor, always making just enough to keep getting high, never seeking to become anything more than he already is. Jesse has made a great deal of money as an inventor, but he has no real adult life in which to spend it, so he just buys toys and throws parties to keep himself company. Kenny became a cop simply because he didn’t have any other dreams. And Sam (Natalie Portman), who he meets at a doctor’s office, is an off-kilter, high-energy mess of a girl who constantly strives to be unique.

Through Andrew’s three days with his friends and his burgeoning infatuation with Sam, he finds that what he’s really looking for is a sense of "home." After high school and college, "home" ceases to exist for the neither here-nor-there typical 25-year-old. We know it, but we simply refuse to believe that you can’t go home again. You have to face forward. And most importantly: You have to let yourself feel in order to really be alive.

Simple lessons, to be sure, but maybe it’s exactly what we all need to learn. That perfection isn’t possible, accepting pain is simply a part of growing up and that life’s never, ever going to be what you thought it would.

Now that’s something I wish I had learned years ago.