Love and Respect For the Movies We Outgrew

Garden State

If you loved a movie as a kid, it becomes sacrosanct. If you loved a movie in college, it becomes fodder for mockery.

Currently on the dump pile is Garden State, the subject of a VICE article from Dan Ozzi, writing about the 2004 movie for their “2005 Week” because it’s the “10th anniversary of realizing Garden State sucked.” Tortured justification for its existence aside, the article is structured as a mirror, reflecting first on why we loved Zach Braff’s film and then, parroting its own sentences, swapping out adjectives to show how we recognized its flaws. Presumably, because we matured.

Braff didn’t take too kindly to it.

@VICE I really enjoy your reporting. You are better than this very cruel article about my film. https://t.co/yj6E4jaYfI

— Zach Braff (@zachbraff) September 15, 2015

But, okay. I’ll bite. Not to defend Garden State directly (although I could), but to argue the value of appreciating movies of all kinds that we may have outgrown.

First of all, this is a fascinating phenomenon that’s worth exploring, particularly because we tend to enshrine the movies of our childhood – no matter how cheesy or filled with rap-song-coated credits – into a shining cage that cannot be touched lest our entire young existences be tainted. We covet the movies of our pre-adolescence so fiercely that every studio is drooling all over themselves to exploit them.

On the reverse end are the movies that seemed deep when we were in the age of searching and uncertainty. As an adult, it’s too easy and too frivolous to try to look cool by dismissing what we once felt was magical. What might have once sneaked into our young souls, shallow as they may have been. Our responses to art change, and they can be time-indexed, but nothing will change how you felt in the moment of discovery.

This is a VICE article, so it should be taken with a shovel-full of salt and at least half a sedative, but the underlying sentiment isn’t relegated to its publishing space. We are, somehow, even more disaffected, disconnected and snarkier than back in the 00s (or, impossibly, even the 90s), and there’s a lot of mileage to be gained by mocking the vulnerable.

That’s why it’s greatly encouraging that the overwhelming comment section response is for Ozzi to take a deep breath and to question why he’s trying so hard to distance himself from a movie he once revered. The shout coming back out of the abyss is that sneering your way through faux-depth is even faux-deeper. Still, Ozzi’s article isn’t alone.

This mindset may also be a product of Braff’s latest film, the crowdfunded Wish I Was Here, proving that he’s still fascinated by existential ennui a decade after you’re supposed to have figured it all out. It’s an attitude that our public, social-media-culled presences cannot abide. “An adult who isn’t totally on track?!” we scoff, wondering what the fuck we’re supposed to be doing.

I can understand why it’s accepted, even popular, to mock the 20-something figure who pops up regularly to question their place in the universe. From The Graduate to Garden State, there are more than a few skinny white guys who want desperately to have a plan which the universe refuses to hand them. There’s a reason why most high school poetry is awful. It’s the tragic combination of inexperience and lack of context which, then, ultimately makes movies like Garden State so fascinating when they work. When the sense of disconnection engages, and when you’re at the right age, the chemical cocktail can be overwhelming.

It can also, clearly, lead to a crash.

Braff is also an interesting target because Garden State wasn’t the springboard to a healthy filmmaking career like everyone thought, and because he’s just so damned sensitive. Responding to a critic: who does that? Maybe a few filmmakers, but who responds so politely and earnestly? Who openly recognizes an article like that as “cruel” while complimenting the publication? Braff and only Braff.

In a similar way, his movie is an easy target because of how earnest and vulnerable its tone is. It’s optimistic, refuses cynicism and has enough personality to be parodied (and copied).

Frankly, I also wonder how much of the backlash is Grand Hipsterism on display. A pro-tip borrowed directly from learning about The Shins: if you only like a band before other people discover them, it wasn’t the music you cared about.

Garden State was the catalyst for this, but it could really apply to any film that you might have outgrown. Again, knowing that “What can we shit on?” has become a go-to at editorial pitch meetings and knowing that I’m feeding the trolls, it’s still important to recognize the worth of art that has helped us grow – even if it helped us grow beyond it. Even if something has soured completely in your mind, mocking it wholesale seems more a sign that you still need it (or its lessons), and less like you recognize its flaws while appreciating the role it played in your life.

Braff’s quirky adventure of self-discovery came out when I was a sophomore in college, so I was ripe for the picking. I’ve seen it a few times, and I generally like it. I cringe at a few elements, but not that often, and not nearly as hard as during most of its imitators. The thing is, there’s a new crop of lost teenagers and 20-somethings emerging every year to discover this movie and others like it. It would be foolish and shortsighted to pretend that the loves of our pimple-faced years didn’t matter, regardless of our urge to roll our eyes at them and, tacitly, to roll our eyes at who we were back then.

That’s what’s really at stake here. When we mock the airy movies we worshiped in college, we’re also mocking the person we used to be. There’s nothing wrong with that, although it’s funny how infallible we were at ten and how goofily idiotic we were at 20. However, it’s more valuable, and also more difficult, to try to understand why we saw value in something that now feels tough to defend, why we felt nuance in something that feels heavy handed in hindsight, and why we felt like screaming into the abyss alongside Braff and Natalie Portman when that same scene now might make us fall silent. Plus, shouldn’t we give our younger selves just an inch of leeway? To trust that we liked the things we liked for a reason?

For my own part, I can’t imagine I’m alone in responding to Garden State because I saw myself not only in the wandering mind of the main character, but also in Sam’s silly enthusiasm and Mark’s absurdly misplaced hope for future wealth. Because it came out a few years after my brother died, I also connected with the feeling of losing your anchor that comes with the death of a close family member, and all of that was enhanced by a lack of direction during a time when everyone is telling you that you have to know exactly what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. If you’re looking for a fuller defense of Garden State, though, it’s hard to do better than Jesse David Fox’s.

The problem with Ozzi’s takedown of the film isn’t that it presents two views on the same movie, separated by time and maturity. The problem isn’t that those two views are so disparate. The problem is that Ozzi pretends that the newer viewpoint is somehow correct simply by virtue of being new.

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