"Manic Pixie Dream Girl" Case Study: Natalie Portman in Garden State

Curator's Note

Zach Braff’s directorial debut, Garden State, sees the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope in full effect with Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Samantha, the love interest to Braff’s overmedicated protagonist, Andrew Largeman. 

Following the death of his mother, Andrew returns to his childhood residence in the suburbs of New Jersey, where he first encounters Sam in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. The obligatory meet-cute begins with Sam’s laughter at the sight of a German Shepherd humping Andrew’s leg, and her suggestion to listen to “the song that will change your life” (“New Slang” by The Shins). Andrew, looking to mend his depressive symptoms without using his prescription medications, develops an immediate attraction to Sam, whose idiosyncrasies (such as her ability to spontaneously “do something nobody has ever done before”) give him a reason to feel something again. 

Sam, however, only exists within the framework of Andrew’s conflict, with her eccentric nature serving to obscure his depressive reality. Her desire to stray from “unoriginality” is what eventually prompts Andrew to abandon his plans of leaving New Jersey by the film's denouement, declaring his love to her despite only knowing her for four days or so. From Braff's perspective, Sam is the answer to Andrew's problem, or at least, a happier alternative to the life he had before. But Andrew’s adoption of such a mindset brings more concern to the viewer than satisfaction, as Braff seemingly advocates for a life without medication; a life where starting a relationship amidst mental turmoil is deemed a beneficial decision. Because this is a story about Andrew first and foremost…..Sam just so happens to be instrumental in it. 

Over a decade after the theatrical release of Garden State, Braff commented on the film’s relevance within today’s culture: “I always say, to those who loved it, thank you, and to those who didn’t — it was my first film….I was a 25-year-old guy who was writing what he dreamed would happen: a woman would come along and save him from himself.” Essentially, Braff created a fantasy for himself, but of course, not every fantasy can (and should) last forever.


Works Cited: 

Braff, Zach, director. Garden State. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2004. 

Simon, Rachel. “Why Zach Braff Still Defends ‘Garden State.’” Bustle, Bustle, 23 Feb. 2016, https://www.bustle.com/articles/142809-zach-braff-defends-garden-states-....

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