The film centers on Andrew Largeman (Braff), a 26-year-old actor/waiter who has been living in a catatonic emotional state. Since he was ten, he has been kept on at least one form of the drug lithium. After receiving a phone call from his dad, with whom he has not spoken in a long time, Andrew returns to his hometown in New Jersey upon finding out his paraplegic mother drowned in the bath. Visiting the place where he grew up, he soon meets Sam (Portman), the girl that brings him out of his shell. The title alludes both to the nickname for New Jersey and to lines from Andrew Marvell's poem "The Garden" ("Such was that happy garden-state,/ While man there walked without a mate").
It was filmed over 25 days in April and May 2003 and released on July 28, 2004. The main setting and primary shooting location was New Jersey. It was an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival. The film won Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. The film contains many allusions to the similar coming-of-age film The Graduate (1967), most notably the opening airplane scene that both pictures share.
Garden State was well received, and is considered a major success for Braff, as it was his feature film debut as a director. Lacking the publicity machine of most mainstream Hollywood films, it generated a devoted fan base from people who read and responded to Braff's blog on the film's official site. Fans drove hours to see the film and saw it repeatedly in theaters. The film also spawned a popular soundtrack for which Braff, who picked the music himself, won a Grammy award.
This film provides examples of:
- Abusive Parents: Andrew's father tries to destroy his mind with unnecessary psychiatric drugs as punishment for accidentally crippling his mother.
- Alone in a Crowd: Largeman is spaced out on the couch while the rest of the party is a Binge Montage going on all around him.
- Later he and Sam talk to each other at the other end of the pool while everyone else is swimming.
- Apologises a Lot: Sam tends to apologize for her quirks or anything really in fear of freaking Andrew out. He even mocks her for this at one point.
- Bathtub Bonding: Andrew and Sam, albeit without water in the tub.
- Big Damn Kiss
- Black Comedy: Definitely. Some of the darkest, squickiest clips were cut from the theatrical release, but they're available on the DVD.
- Boy Meets Girl
- Candlelit Bath
- Clifftop Caterwauling: One of the most well known scenes of the film has Andrew, Sam and Mark climbing on an abandoned crane and scream into a chasm.
- Cool Bike: Largeman's WWII bike and sidecar.
- Double-Meaning Title: It can refer to a popular nickname for New Jersey, or to the emotionless, static state of Large's life since he went on his medication.
- Dream Sequence: Opens with one.
- Dysfunctional Family
- Emotionless Guy: Andrew Largeman. He gradually opens up during the course of the film because he's finally off his psychiatric medications and because he meets Sam.
- Fanservice: The pool scene with multiple girls (including Sam) swimming around in their underwear.
- Fire/Water Juxtaposition: One of Andrew and Sam's first romantic moments comes in a swimming pool, where they go swimming together in their underwear. Later, they have another get-together in front of a crackling fireplace. One moment takes place when Andrew is still emotionally disaffected, and had difficulty expressing himself around others; the other takes place when he (finally) starts to come out of his shell.
- Flames of Love: Andrew confesses his affection for Sam in front of a fireplace.
- Groin Attack: Sam claims this to be her preferred (and regular) method of dealing with her three misbehaving dogs, and given her personality we really don't have much reason to disbelieve her.
- Inventor of the Mundane: One of Zach Braff's friends invented "silent velcro" and became a multi-millionaire. He now spends his time driving golf-carts around his mansion.
- It Always Rains at Funerals: It was actually raining the day of the shoot, but they had trouble getting the rain to show up on the film.
- Joisey: The title is a nickname.
- Leaving You to Find Myself: Andrew's explanation why he has to leave Sam at the end.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Sam. Certainly not the Ur-Example, but one of the most famous examples. Notably, the term was coined in an article about Elizabethtown, which was released the year after this film (and was a pretty blatant clone of it).
- Meet Cute: Sam and Andrew at the doctor's office. A dog is humping his leg and Andrew asks what he should do. Sam tells him to kick the dog in the balls.
- Nerds Speak Klingon:Mark is displeased to see that his mother has a new boyfriend, Tim. It doesnt help that he wears knight armour and speaks Klingon. The best part is that Tim was played by Jim Parsons, a.k.a. Sheldon.Mark's Mom: Don't be shy, Tim, tell them what you said to me last night.
Mark: Tell us what you said to her last night!
Tim: (Speaks Klingon)
Mark: You have got to be kidding me.
Mark's Mom: It means "I like to mate after battle."
Tim: That isn't what I said.
Mark's Mom: Yeah...
Tim: NO, that isn't the one I said! This one means "Kill Kirk".... and also, "hallelujah", depending on the context...
- Nice Guy: Andrew Largeman.
- Redemption in the Rain
- Romantic Comedy
- Rule of Funny: Large's argument with the customer at the restaurant probably wouldn't come up in Real Life. Vietnamese restaurants are actually far more likely to serve bread than most other Asian restaurants; Vietnam was a protectorate of France for over a century, so its cuisine has a very strong French slant, and baguettes are frequently eaten there.
- Shout-Out: To The Graduate, but to plenty of other things as well.
- Several books' spines are visible on a shelf in Mark's room. Their distinctive coloration is that of the Clan books, in alphabetical order, from the Legend Of The Five Rings role-playing game.
- Spin the Bottle
- Spiritual Successor: If Garden State went one state over, it would be called Adventureland.
- Braff made a proper Spiritual Successor called Wish I Was Here
- Time Passes Montage: During the party, a montage shows Andrew sitting on the couch while everything around him happens Fast Forward.
- Tomboyish Name: Sam.
- Unbuilt Trope: Sam was the Trope Codifier (if not the outright Trope Maker) for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. While she plays the trope pretty straight, Andrew's mental struggles are played with a surprising amount of gravity and seriousness, especially compared to later works that Garden State inspired. He's not just mopey guy who can't enjoy life—he suffers from a legitimate brain disorder that makes it difficult to feel emotion, partly brought about by his psychiatrist father drugging him with lithium. It's also heavily implied that he shuts himself off from his emotions due to his psychological trauma from accidentally paralyzing his mother.
- Wallpaper Camouflage: Andrew's new shirt which has the same pattern as the bathroom wallpaper.
- Wrongfully Attributed: An in-universe half-example, there's a scene where Andrew's friend Jesse mentions Brave New World and attributes it to Aldous Huxtable rather than Huxley.