Garden State

Gen-X-Review-Garden-StateGarden State is Generation X’s version of The Graduate, a nice little rabbit punch to those who those who thought the slacker cohort had gone gentle into this good night.

It’s a surprisingly quirky, funny, sad film starring, directed and written by Zach Braf, better known as the SCRUBs kid from television. The movie is remarkably good, coming from a first-time writer / director, and will likely stand with films like Slacker, Reality Bites and Clerks as one of the all-time great Generation-X films.

If we’re to believe hack sociologists like Neil Howe and William Straus (The 13th Generation), the golden age Millennials / Generation Y should be walking old women across streets and rescuing cats from trees at this point, but that pesky amusing, quirky, analytical Gen-X keeps making movies, playing music, and writing books, plays and poems.

Depending on where you’re standing, Garden State is either the last gasp of a generation that has felt stifled and abandoned, or the tip of an iceberg of a youth rebellion that could go on indefinitely. If American Pie is the representative brainchild of the up-and-coming generation and Garden State is a late Gen-X artifact, most of us will end up missing those annoying slackers that came of age in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s more than we might think. Any way you look at it, Garden State is an extraordinary film.

When Andrew Largeman (Braf ) is told his mother has died, he leaves Los Angeles where he’s a struggling actor, and returns to a hometown with more than its share of ghosts. Friends like Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) appear to be in a sort of stasis, stuck in an unfortunate adolescence where the main form of entertainment is getting drunk and playing spin the bottle.

In LA Largeman has been wearing makeup to appear oriental in order to wait tables at a Vietnamese restaurant, but back in New Jersey Largeman’s one claim to fame is having acted in a made-for-cable movie as a “retarded” football quarterback. He has made more than a career out of pretending; he has turned his life into one act after another, sleepwalking through his twenties, until he doesn’t even come alive in his dreams.

Largeman has allowed himself to be interpreted by others. The drugs he takes are prescribed by his psychologist father (Ian Holm), to transform the once troubled child into a normal conforming adult, and he is so inert that he doesn’t even notice when friends write on his body after a night of partying. The drugs numb him out of existence, allow him to blend passively into his enviroment, but they do not help him deal with his problems. The pharmaceuticals, in fact, have medicated him out of existence since the age of eight.

He meets Sam (Natalie Portman) when he goes to a neurologist’s office for a checkup. Sam engages the moment in a way that at first disturbs Largeman. At one point she tells him that when she’s feeling unoriginal she does something totally unexpected – shivers, sings, dances, talks gibberish – and this brings her back to herself. Sam is an antidote to the drugs Largeman has been fed since childhood, the person who gives him the courage to be himself.

He dusts off an old motorcycle given to him by his grandfather, and spends his time in his hometown trying to get back into the rhythm of life. On the last day of his visit home he, Sam and Mark go on an odyssey to rediscover a lost part of Largeman’s personal history. This trip leads them to the bottom of the world, where an older Gen-X couple live with their young child, protecting land that has rejected the postmodern world.

Living in an arc on the top of a geological anomaly, where a mall was planned to be built before an enormous canyon opened up to prevent it, the couple are authentic, real people. They’ve rejected the trash culture in the same way the land has rejected the mall: By opening up new and original boundaries within themselves.

At the heart of Garden State is a scathing generational critique. The film’s Baby Boomer and Silent-Generation parents are terrible people, unable to accept their parental roles. Mark’s mom is dating a guy he went to school with and takes bong hits with her son before leaving to go to work, and Largeman’s Silent-Generation Dad is unable to live with imperfection. He has sacrificed his son to create an illusionary stable, nuclear family, afraid of the messiness of real human connections.

The young Gen-Xers are going nowhere fast. Their success story – a young man who invented soundless Velcro and made a fortune – is so bored that he shoots flaming arrows into the sky as a game. They feel constrained (literally, like Largeman silenced by high doses of Prozac, and figuratively like Sam who must wear a helmet at work) and restless, but have not yet learned how to live truly on their own.

The love story is woven into the film, not tacked onto it, and feels authentic. Real is a popular buzzword, both in the movie and through the culture, for the spiritual journey of this generation. These young people strive for legitimacy and authenticity in a fake culture. For some this means accepting the moral implications of what they do – Mark is a gravedigger who routinely pilfers the people he buries – and for others it means discovering a love that will last, even if it hurts.

Sam tells Largeman that life is real. It hurts, but it’s all that we have. Pain can’t be avoided if we really want to live because life is only precious because we choose to endure its pain as well as its pleasure. Avoiding suffering only leads to a life that is too deadened to accept true joy.

Sometimes we only find our real selves when we allow ourselves to love.


Open Water: This Year’s Blair Witch

gen-x-review-open-water-movie-poster.jpgWe all know the feeling: The ground beneath us slips away and we suddenly realize we’re way over our heads.

A big, hard thing knocks against your foot. The jagged outline of a fin rises next to you, then sinks into the gray water. There is definitely… something… in the water… with you.

Welcome to Open Water, this year’s Blair Witch, just when you thought the realist convention of jittery point-of-view shots was behind us and we could get back to conventional camera world. Open Water is as intense and satisfying a film as you are likely to see this summer, just don’t expect to enjoy any end-of-the-summer beach days after seeing the movie.

Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) are a modern 30-something couple. They are shallow, successful people, good at their jobs, physically fit, active – in short, yuppies. They rely on technology and have tethered themselves to cell phones, laptop computers and digital cameras in their daily lives.
Their wealth protects them, insulates them from the real world where you are either predator or prey.

They hastily leave on a last-minute vacation to a tropical island, trying to find time in their busy lives for one another. On the island they play tourists, following the well-developed scripts we all are given in these circumstances: Eating exotic foods, drinking fruity mixed drinks, wearing dumb hats.

On the second day of their vacation they go deep-sea diving. The day begins uneventful enough, with the sort of safe back-to-nature “petting dolphin” play we’ve come to expect from the Discovery Channel, but when they surface, Susan and Daniel find that the tour boat is gone.

Although their lifeline to civilization has been broken, they are not, strictly speaking, alone. Strange things move beneath them. Although they have names for the creatures – sharks, jellyfish, stingrays – nothing in their science prepares them to share space with these creatures.

In the beginning Daniel anchors this new experiences in television, desperate to find rationality in all the ocean’s craziness. He recites facts from Shark Week, discusses the certification process, and talks about the impossibility of the situation in order to reassure himself of their rescue. Reason is slippery in the middle of nowhere, though, especially when the monster isn’t just an image on television, but something tapping at your foot.

Susan and Daniel are reduced to children. Nothing in their pampered world has prepared them for this reality, and the ocean strips the layers off these people until we see the raw, scared kids below. They begin consoling one another by calling each other “baby” and grip desperately onto one another.
But the farther they float out to sea, the deeper they drift apart emotionally and disintegrate psychologically. He resents her work and feels threatened; she does not believe or trust him. His frustrations boil over into guttural sounds while she is reduced to whimpering pathetically.

“I don’t know what’s worse, seeing them or not seeing them,” Susan says after a shark explodes in the water nearby.

“Seeing them,” Daniel replies.

Writer-director Chris Kentis uses every inch of the screen. Shadows dart just beneath the surface of the ocean. They could be anything – sticks, seaweed, the edge of a wave, a tentacle, fin, something’s eye – and Kentis suspends this uncertainty as long as possible, using visual ambiguity to heighten suspense. We find ourselves searching, like the characters, for the familiar, yet unknowable thing that we know circles in the murky darkness around them.

Like M. Night Shyamalan, Kentis frames scenes so that action occurs at the peripherals, just out of sight. It’s a bitter reward for audience members to spot a potential threat rise and then disappear as characters look elsewhere, and Kentis amplifies the sensation by allowing many of these dangers to level out and disappear.


Less a character study of Susan and Daniel than an exploration into our own primal fears, Open Water somehow makes nothing seem pretty scary. The film’s extraordinary visual storytelling is more effective than conventional dialog-driven narratives, but the characters remain strangers to us even as they seem intimately familiar.

The film is situation-driven, not character-driven, and it is difficult for audiences to adjust to this level of emotional intensity while not particularly knowing the film’s main characters. But this is the point. Despite personal quirks, Susan and Daniel are not fully fleshed characters: They are bait, designed to draw us into the drama and force us to believe that we too could find ourselves in over our heads.

We have built our civilizations on solid ground to get away from the slippery, sharp, strange things that own the bottom of the oceans. But, Yes, Virginia, the beautiful places have their sharks, too, and that lovely, tanned body you have been working on all summer is just food to the things that lie below the surface of the water.

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