Garden State (2004) was a film which helped give renewed interest and acceptance in the higher-end independent films and made audiences (and studios) open-minded to other similarly quirky and heartfelt films. With any independent film, by virtue of the fact that it is in fact "independent", garnering any sort of praise is not only difficult but trying to bring something different to the table is also quite a challenge. First time director Zach Braff (of Scrubs fame) culled from his past and inserted many elements of his life into the film. It made for a very personal film to him but also connected with multiple audiences as it was a story void of pretension and followed exposed characters mostly stripped to their core.
While not the first independent film to become a hit (while similarly featuring a cast mostly comprised of young but established actors), Garden State was not your everyday story either. An unconventional yarn, it is a quirky tale of forgiveness with hints at being a love story. Mainly about the main character's quietly troubled past, it focuses on two unlikely people who hit it off because of their oddness. Again we've seen this before but what Braff successfully did was inject a greatly downplayed blend of his signature Scrubs comedy into a what is actually an emotional story. The end result is a touching story that is fun although despite it's narrative having no clear end goal. That approach allowed the audience to relate to nearly every character because they (although fictitious) were depicted to be real people with a unique and fragile nature.
Walking the line of a drama and comedy the film is a muted to an almost British hybrid that while it may appear dull on the surface, has many emotional layers that speak to different viewers at different stages of their lives. Against the normal narrative here, there was no hero, no villain and the beauty of the film was the realness it projected. Almost documentary feeling in nature, Garden State echoed a true to life vibe with its unflattering and frankly banal characters as well as the lack of superficial resolution.
Countless independent films follow emotionally troubled or socially destitute characters. Those films, which many times involves a broken family as a key component, makes the audience party to their tragic story while trying to show the good amongst the bad, but I feel Garden State was a slightly different animal. Going for an awkward but heartfelt story, Garden State stayed clear of a depressing story (dominant and expected in a good number of "independent" films) and also downplayed much of the glamor surrounding their established young actors. Without a traditional "Hollywood star" in any lead role, each scene worked as the actors could share the screen without making it seem that they were trying to outshine each other. There was no hogging the spotlight or stealing the scenes. This allowed for an almost ensemble (or troupe) feel without actually being one.
By way of becoming both a financial and critical success, it showed studios that it was not as risky as once thought to back an independent film. It paved the way for films like Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, Sunshine Cleaning, Whip It, Away We Go, etc. Again, as it is not the first independent film to beat the odds and reach wide audiences, it did show that a film doesn't have to be produced by a big league studio to be a hit or tell a great story.
On the down side, Garden State made those same studios think they could pass off films that claim to be independent or oddball in nature just by using mostly unrecognized talent. Also, much as Garden State's success could be called an anomaly, the same success proved that lightning doesn't always strike twice. Garden State's greatest strength (Braff) didn't translate as well to other films where his presence didn't necessarily mean success. Films like The Ex and The Last Kiss didn't quite live up to the precedent that Garden State established. While he has incredible potential, it made it look like he just can't distance himself from the character and style of acting on Scrubs.
All in all, Garden State (and another successful film that year, Napoleon Dynamite) reconfirmed the adage that you can't judge a film or it's message by its cover (3 kids wearing trash bags yelling for a yet unknown reason still seems a bit odd). It is truly the quality of the story that defines the success. Finally it is a film judged by its the core elements of the story as well as the resonance with the audience that defines a "hit film"...no matter the budget or the varying degree of familiar vs. unfamiliar elements there-in.