In his mid-twenties and having been estranged from his family since his mid-teens, Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) returns home to New Jersey for a few days to attend his mother's funeral. The world he meets there (in "The Garden State," ironically) is persistently unnatural and weird. His old school friends are leading grotesque and diminished lives, and Andrew dislikes and dreads his father, a psychiatrist played by Ian Holm, because of the prehistory we discover in mid-film. (Andrew's mother had suffered with depression, and young Andrew hated her for it. One day, aged 9, he gave her a shove, and freak circumstances led to a hard fall and her becoming paraplegic. Fifteen years later she has died in her bathtub, perhaps a suicide--although that isn't mentioned in the film.)

Andrew keeps his psychic distance from all this, with one fortunate exception: By chance he meets Samantha or "Sam" (Natalie Portman), a sweet loopy girl his age who lives in a child-like room in her mother's house and has a tendency to lie a lot and then confess. She and Andrew take a liking to each other, and a relationship develops that eventually helps Andrew come to terms with his mother's death, with his role in the tragic prehistory, and, thus, with his father and his own life, now able to begin, finally, as a young adult.


How should we understand Andrew's zombie-like state at the beginning of the film, in which he is unable to relate to anybody or anything, including his own history or present situation? His mother's death is certainly a factor, as is his childhood guilt over her accident, now compounded. Also, he's been on antidepressants more or less since the accident (prescribed by his father), so he is now seeing the world without drugs for the first time as an adult--an example, perhaps, of pharmacologically-extended adolescence.

Finally, Andrew is experiencing a kind of homelessness. The film has a very generation-specific focus on the transition between adolescence and adulthood. Andrew (like Sam) no longer belongs in his childhood home, but he has nothing of his own to replace it. It is time for him to be an adult, but he seems helpless to do that, and there are no good models for him.

This is where Sam comes in. She's weird, too, with her semi-compulsive lying, but weird in a way that fits Andrew's ironic and slightly amused view of things. They're at similar developmental points, and they clearly help each other with the previously unimaginable process of (at least mentally) leaving home and taking charge of their own lives. This film would be a good choice to begin a discussion of either developmental stages or mourning.


Writing credits: Zach Braff. Several awards to Zach Braff as new director.

Primary Source

Fox Searchlight Pictures