Garden State and the post-geek films

This movie didn’t make it to my top 10 films of the 2000s, but it showed up in the rather long list that I edited down. The thing about making top film/music/whatever lists, especially of recent things, is you just don’t know how these things will wear over time. Garden State was certainly a harbinger of things to come–the quirky indie romance comedy with a dash of realism and lo-fi of-the-moment soundtrack.

It’s the type of film that owes its stripes to Gen X films like Reality Bites and its half-sister Singles, but it’s more of what was to come with finely tuned post-irony of the next generation. The loser and antihero was filled with innocent sincerity, accidental irony. There is no war with The Man, The Boomers, that became a defining stroke of the Gen X film. (More recent movies like Lost in Translation and School of Rock were still questioning if, after all, the Boomers lost their mojo.) Instead, in these new films, the hero must fight only himself.

These new heroes have been in therapy most of their lives, they are brutally forthcoming about their flaws, or at least innocent of them by virtue of their music tastes. Napolean Dynamite, for example. Geek Love taken to a whole ‘nother level.

I kinda like these heroes. They won’t be defined by outsiderness. They speak frankly about their Jewishness. They wear what they want. They make friends across cliques. They kiss at the right moments. They break up at the right moments. They admit when they’re scared.

Part of the success of these films, I realize, is an industry thing; compared to 20 years ago, there is more financing, distribution, and willingness to greenlight young filmmakers with small narrative scripts.

But back to Garden State: it leaves me with the warm fuzzies. The first time around, watching it in the theater, The Shins were a revelation in every scene. But now that we know it all so well, how does it stand up? Natalie Portman, for one. She has a quality to her emotional presence that makes her seem like a child and an old woman at the same time, and I think if she carries on as an actress will be remembered as one of the greats.

Peter Sarsgaard’s performance is really special, and it seemed like this character was made for him. In this story there is a lot of quiet compression alternating with small glimpses of release. We get one or two privileged moments where Sarsgaard flickers with vulnerability.

And then, of course, the whole scene with the random overflowing love-family in the ark in the storm on the edge of a terrifying natural gorge. It makes you go “what?” and “right!” at the same time. Never mind the Jewish references there. Surreal but truth-y truth is what these films are all about.


  1. han says:

    Yes! The ark scene is similar to the over-flowing love maple syrup and pole-dancing grief night out in Away We Go. It just gets away with it somehow– even though the statements being made are quite grand and idealistic; sentimental even. I wonder if it’s because the rest of the film has so much realism in (i.e. natural sounding dialogue and familiar situations) that enough trust is built with the viewer for them to slip in something deeper? I wonder?

    • Amy says:

      I was going to mention Away We Go. The surreal scenes happen at the same time in both stories. I kept waiting for something sharp and cynical in both movies–but that’s part of the surprise and tension… And then everyone leaves the movie in such a good mood. It’s anti-cynic, and maybe deep down we want to be surprised like that, that there are actually happy, sincere people. And it kind of tugs on that need.

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