Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2005, Volume 25, No. 1
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Garden State. 2004. Fox Searchlight Pictures and Miramax Films. Zach Braff [Director, Writer]. Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, and Stacey Sher [Producers]. Running time: 109 minutes.

Reviewed by Sally Hayward, University of Alberta.

There is a scene in the recently released movie, Garden State, a first for actor-turned- writer and director, Zach Braff, where Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) and Jesse (Armando Riesco) sit watching their friend, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), dig a grave. Because Largeman has been away in Los Angeles, Jesse attempts to tell him how his hometown has changed. However, when Jesse compares the town to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World—a place where everyone literally has their drug of choice—he distorts Aldous Huxley's name, throwing it back at him and at the viewer reconfigured as "Huxtable." This allusion, rising as it does from out of a dystopian grave site (with unnecessary slow-motion effects), writes large the soulless (dis)contentment of a modern materialist utopia: a utopia driven by capitalist, able-bodied, and normatively superficial notions of the good life.

This off-kilter and often roaringly funny film opens when Largeman returns home for his paraplegic mother's funeral. Once home, he finds himself dealing with the guilt, secrecy, and chemical dependencies that have overwhelmed him since he the age of nine. At this age, he pushed his mother and, in a freak accident, she fell and broke her back. After the accident, Largeman's father, a psychiatrist (Ian Holm), medicates his son in an illusory attempt to keep him pain-free and "happy." Now, having returned home chemical-free and feeling his emotions for the first time in years, Largeman reunites with his friends, meets and falls in love with Sam (Natalie Portman), and confronts his father.

One of the main themes of Garden State is the idea that happiness can be sustained only by money, a series of drug or alcohol-induced quick fixes or, in the case of Largeman's father, Gideon, by a constant, self-regulated insistence on normality. In this world, where everyone is searching for his or her own version of the good life, "normal" and "abnormal" are often subverted. While Largeman's father, as a "normal" and privileged psychiatrist, is portrayed as cold, disconnected and somewhat abnormal, his son's ability to play a "retard" so well that no one can believe that he is "not really retarded" (in LA, Largeman was an actor known for such a role) represents mental disability as a "normal," even desirable, subject position. As Sam stresses, what is important is not being "normal," but being "real." From this perspective, retardation and high intelligence are just two points on a continuum that strive not for material, rational or "stereotypical" perfection, but for unique moments of imperfection that are revealing of our shared, vulnerable, and decidedly imperfect humanity.

In troubling our notions of normality, Braff makes an admirable attempt to valorize the non-normal, the different, quirky and unique individuals and individual moments that make it okay to be "who we are." Central to this theme is Sam, Largeman's girlfriend. Sam, who has epilepsy, insists that it is her difference, and her ability to create an original moment, that keeps her happy and makes her feel unique. Here, uniqueness is not a vague concept, but a way of being; it involves "discovering something, doing something," constantly seeking after difference rather than sameness. Whether it involves "screaming over the infinite abyss," winning a "retarded Oscar," or doing something small, uninteresting, and seemingly pointless, it is important, this film appears to say, to remain true to one's difference, however that difference is constructed.

Unfortunately, however, while Braff does a good job of valorizing social and even cognitive difference, he is not so clear when it comes to portraying severe disabilities. Largeman's paraplegic mother, for example, is known by her absence. Only seen through the sentimental and politically correct eyes of others, she becomes a stereotype of suffering and pain whose life is portrayed as a mistake. "I think [death] is what she wanted," Largeman tells Sam at one point in the film and, as if to emphasize the point, Braff later has him tell his father that he thinks what his mother wanted "more than anything was for it all to be over." This leaves open the question about what forms of difference are really acceptable. While Largeman's paraplegic mother is portrayed as "better off dead," Sam's dreams of being a figure skater or even a good secretary are dashed by the discovery that she has epilepsy. Contained here problematically within a narrative of overcoming or failing to overcome, "real" disability, it would seem, only becomes acceptable through the unconditional love of another: something Largeman's mother doesn't receive, but which Sam experiences through her relationship with Largeman.

Although Braff succeeds in this film at gesturing to a utopia where difference is no longer simply a buzz word, but a way of being, the film's clichéd happy ending—love will fix it all—fails to fully challenge some of the more serious questions the film raises about how capitalist ideals and modern concepts of the good life have negative implications for people with severe disabilities. At the end of the film, Largeman leaves Sam and Garden State to "figure out" life for himself; however, he comes back because he realizes he has a commitment to staying and working things out. I think that, to some degree, Braff's potential to work things out as a great filmmaker will depend upon his own ability to rise to the challenge of working through questions of "normality" as they pertain to people whose lives are often defined by their disabilities. Given that disability is the one subject position that we all occupy at some point in our lives, and given that this subject position is often not overcome, and often not validated by capitalist ethics or even loving others, there is a lot riding on Braff's ability to use his unique, insightful, and poetic style to portray individuals with real-life disabilities as people who, in all their pain, suffering, and quirky humor, have lives that are decidedly well worth living.