You know that point in your life when you realize the house you grew up in isn’t really your home anymore? The idea of home is gone. Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people who miss the same imaginary place. ~Large
When Zach Braff wrote the script for this film, which he also directed, Garden State was not his first choice for the title. He wanted Large’s Ark. If you haven’t seen the film, that won’t mean much, but if you have, it will bring to mind a scene that acts as a metaphor for the entire film. It is also a metaphor which tends to define the postmodern generation.
Andrew Largeman, played by Braff, is known as “Large” to his friends. Estranged from his father, he comes home from LA where he barely exists as a waiter and would-be actor to New Jersey for the funeral of his mother. He reconnects with Mark, a high school friend, and falls in love with Sam, played with delightful quirkiness by Natalie Portman. On the last day of his visit, Mark takes Large and Sam on a quixotic but purposeful journey which ends at what seems to be the end of the world. They’re in an old rock quarry where there is a great crevasse, a seemingly bottomless crack dropping down into darkness. Perched on the very edge of the abyss is a boat. When they knock on the door, we feel a sense of dread wondering who would choose to live in such an unlikely place. The door is opened by a gentle man with a child securely held in his arms. He invites them into the warmth of his home, out of the pouring rain, where his wife serves tea, and where the three friends catch a glimpse of their lovely commitment to one another in what is the healthiest relationship depicted in the movie. Hired to guard the place, each night the man goes over the edge on ropes, exploring the crevasse. When they leave, Large, Sam, and Mark stand in the rain at the edge and scream down into the bottomless hole. “Good luck exploring the infinite abyss,” Large tells the man living in the ark. “Thanks.” he replies. “Hey, you too.”
As I watched Garden State it was hard not think of other films, each of which provides a brief glimpse into a generation. Just as The Graduate (1967), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), and Reality Bites (1994) captured something of the fears, hopes and values of a generation, so Garden State offers a window into the broken, yearning reality of the postmodern generation. Braff clearly wants us to think of The Graduate, since there are a number of allusions to the film, and the soundtrack includes Simon and Garfunkel singing a mournful “The Only Living Boy in New York.” In fact, the soundtrack is impressive—enough to make you want to purchase the CD. When Braff sent his script to people before making the film, he included a copy of the songs, all of which he had chosen.
Garden State is not a flawless film, which probably isn’t surprising since it represents Zach Braff’s writing and directorial debut. There is one scene that seems utterly gratuitous. And though the story does a good job at letting us into Large’s life, his growth as a character, which is central to the plot, has to be compressed into a time-frame that is unrealistic. Still, it’s a fine film, worth watching—a movie which seems to cry out to be discussed.
We have often stated our conviction that the postmodern generation, in its music and films, demonstrates a deep spiritual yearning. Whether that yearning is expressed as a search for meaning, or significance, or transcendence, it always seems to come down to questions about relationships: “In the end, will anyone be there, truly there, for me? Is there anyplace I can call home?” With poignancy and sly ironic wit, Garden State is about young adults asking those questions. Their yearning displays an uneasy sense of quiet desperation, since their search is framed by fragmented homes, alienated relationships, and lives made numb by the mediocrity of a culture in which no one can be sure whether hope isn’t simply a cosmic joke. The pain which Large feels deep within his soul is real, born of tragedy in the face of death. “This is life,” he says. “This is it.” “I know it hurts,” Sam replies. “But it’s life and it’s real. And sometimes it f***ing hurts, but it’s life, and it’s pretty much all we got.” As love blossoms between Large and Sam, they feel the stirring of hope. “Safe,” Large tells her, “when I’m with you I feel safe…like I’m home.”
It should come as no surprise to Christians that the postmodern generation seeks to fulfill its yearning in relationships. It’s not good to be alone, and the love between a woman and man speaks of a greater relationship which we were created to enjoy forever. The gospel invites us into that relationship, and promises a Father who hurries out to welcome us into his arms.
It should also come as no surprise if the postmodern generation doubts our Story. “You have reason to doubt it,” we can say to them, “because all around you the most significant relationships in your life have fragmented. But the Story we are telling is real. And to show it’s real, even though we will never manage it perfectly, we will prove its reality by being there for you ourselves.”
The postmodern generation is asking the right questions, but not finding answers that are sufficient. How will we respond?