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How Zach Braff’s Films Changed My Life

Zach Braff
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Once upon a time — before hashtags or selfies were a form of self-expression and when Facebook was just a blip in Silicon Valley — there was a movie that changed the way young adults saw the world.

I was 15 when ‘Garden State’ was released in the summer of 2004, although its slow burn onto my radar meant that it didn’t really impact my suburban Ohio high school until early 2005. At the time, I was like any other high schooler: confused, appropriately angsty and just trying to figure things out. But when the underground buzz about this ‘Garden State’ movie finally bubbled up into my high school world, it affected me like many things do — music first.

I was at the beginning of what has become an unending exploration of music (the tight indie rock band T-shirts and car keys clipped to the belt loop of my jeans would come later), when I first heard the infectious tambourine tap of the Shins’ ‘New Slang.’ A friend lent me the ‘Garden State’ soundtrack in response to my inquiries, and I was immediately taken by the fact that, well, it didn’t seem like a soundtrack at all. It was compiled more like a finely tuned mixtape — one curated by a close friend with exceptional taste in music, to boot. From the cryptic lyrics of the Shins’ ‘Caring Is Creepy’ to the longing narrative of Cary Brothers’ ‘Blue Eyes’ to Frou Fou’s climactic “Let Go,’ the soundtrack tapped into everything my 16-year-old self was trying to understand. To quote Natalie Portman’s character, Samantha, “It’ll change your life, I swear.”

After falling in love with the ‘Garden State’ soundtrack, I saw the movie and was excited — and a bit relieved — to see that the story was a perfect fit with the musical component. Honestly, what girl didn’t admire pint-sized Natalie Portman’s spunky personality or empathize with Zach Braff‘s disconnect with the world around him? The movie was artistic, but relatable. Smart, witty, beautiful and unpretentious. For a generation of young adults looking for answers beyond Holden Caulfield’s rebellion, this was something.

Whether it’s the memories of long night drives with the soundtrack humming through the speakers of my Toyota Corolla, my now-permanent romantic outlook on airport phone booths or the strong role that writing and music still play in my life, I decided to revisit the movie that had so strongly impacted my youth. Not having properly watched ‘Garden State’ end-to-end in a few years, its upcoming 10th anniversary  – as well as the release of Zach Braff’s upcoming film ‘Wish I Was Here’ — seemed like the perfect moment to do so.

Watching the movie again immediately brought me back to being 16 years old. It wasn’t hard to recall exactly how I felt as I saw the film the first time and experienced the ‘Garden State’ buzz growing around me. Some lines were just as straight-forward and true as I remembered them (“If you can’t laugh at yourself, life’s gonna seem a whole lot longer than you like”), while the bittersweet return of Zach’s character Andrew to his hometown was all too relatable to me, as someone who waited only a month after graduating college to leave Ohio for New York City.

Nearly 10 years after watching ‘Garden State’ for the first time, I have a few of the answers to the questions I had in high school, but I’m still looking for a lot of them. I’m no longer anticipating life when I’m Andrew’s age — I am Andrew’s age. And, of course, I live literally minutes from the Garden State itself. (In fact, I can see New Jersey from the end of my block.) But most of all, seeing how ‘Garden State’ has stood the test of time — at least, 10 years of it — I’m looking forward to seeing Zach’s latest movie, ‘Wish I Was Here.’

Since ‘Wish I Was Here’ doesn’t hit theaters until July 18, I’ve only seen the trailer, but it immediately resonates with many of the same qualities ‘Garden State’ possesses. While the plot is only loosely addressed, the trailer flashes from one beautiful image to the next. The trailer’s music, to my joy, is yet another offering from the Shins. (According to NPR, ‘So Now What’ was written by the Shins’ James Mercer especially for ‘Wish I Was Here’ and gives Zach “goosebumps.”)

Above all, the teaser leaves me with lots and lots of questions, which leads me to believe the movie will do the same. ‘Garden State’ made you work to catch the subtleties, to appreciate the wisdom woven into the conversational dialogue. And, if the ‘Wish I Was Here’ trailer is any indication, Zach is still looking for some of the answers too. Let’s not overlook one of the shots in the trailer, which shows three of the characters silhouetted and looking into what could easily be described as an “infinite abyss.”

Speaking of characters, no one can recall ‘Garden State’ without noting Natalie Portman’s inimitable role as compulsive liar Samantha. Years before her Oscar nominations (and subsequent 2011 win), Natalie lit up the movie alongside Zach. While ‘Wish I Was Here’ features notable actors such as Ashley Greene, Kate Hudson and Mandy Patinkin, it also stands to be the jumping point for lesser-known talents as well. Joey King — most recognizable from her work in ‘Ramona and Beezus’ and ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love.’ — is a promising actress with the same electricity Natalie radiates in each of her roles. This could be a standout role for 15-year-old Joey, much like ‘Garden State’ was for the Oscar-winning actress.

Once again, Zach Braff’s character is a decade or so older than me, this time with children and a whole new set of problems to work through. Even in the two-minute clip, the characters seem as vividly multi-faceted and unique as those in ‘Garden State,’ while the trailer’s West Coast backdrop suggests it’s a long, long way from New Jersey. The scenery might be different, but the trailer indicates that the plot, characters and dialogue — all things that made ‘Garden State’ so iconic — are just as present in this new film.

My biggest hope for ‘Wish I Was Here’ — but also my greatest confidence in Zach’s ability as a writer and director — is that in 10 years, ‘Wish I Was Here’ will do the same thing that ‘Garden State’ does for me now. Provide me with a moving vignette of what it is like to be in this particular stage of adulthood, give me comfort in the fact that I still don’t have all of the answers to the questions I’ve had for years and, of course, curate a soundtrack that innately taps into exactly what I’m feeling this moment. Oh, and continue to stand the test of time.

It’s a tall order, but experience shows that Zach Braff is up for the challenge. I’m looking forward to seeing ‘Wish I Was Here’ when it hits theaters, but I’m also excited for a whole new generation of young adults to try to make some sense of their lives by watching the movie that started it all, ‘Garden State.’

Watch the ‘Wish I Was Here’ Trailer

This post was created in partnership with the Zach Braff movie ‘Wish I Was Here,’ which hits theaters on July 18.

Enter to Win $3,000 in Celebration of 'Wish I Was Here'!

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