As if fortysomethings need any further memento mori that they’ll become dust sooner than they think, Natalie Portman joined their ranks earlier this month. Indeed, it has been more than a quarter-century since Portman’s on-screen debut. And what a stunning journey it’s been from ingenue to in-demand — from Jane Foster to Jackie Kennedy, Star Wars to stoner comedies, Malick to Mr. Magorium, precise impersonations of Madonna to piercing interrogations of the Madonna-whore complex, Beautiful Girls to Black Swan. It seems easy now, with years of hindsight, to feel like Portman’s stardom was never in doubt. But no talent like her should be taken for granted. If you believe her legendary Lonely Island-assisted freestyle, she could even kill your dog for fun, so don’t push her. What you want, Natalie? A career of might. What you need, Natalie? To always find new heights. This is Natalie’s Rap.
Natalie Portman deserved better.
That’s not a fair statement to make after the benefit of 17 years of hindsight. A growing consensus seems to be that Garden State was very good before many of us realized perhaps that wasn’t true at all. Those who have grown up with the movie have begun to reflect on it in the same way we reflect on all areas of personal growth that make us cringe. That was rough, we say. I can’t believe we were ever like that. Thank god we’re not now.
But perhaps it’s something that speaks to youth in general, like Catcher in the Rye or The Craft. Maybe it’s some rite of passage through which we all go. Maybe it’s for those times where you want to sit up late and be morose with your friends and, as Edward Gorey might say, behold the of it all.
Given respective Gens Z and Alpha’s growing reputations for optimistic nihilism, however, I can’t assume they’re fans.
If there remain Garden State lovers, please sheathe your oversized Shins-playing headphones poised to change my life. We went through our Garden State phase, and, while sentimental and overly wrought with derivative contrivances, there can be space in the human experience for contrived sentimentality. We are allowed to love simple things that make us feel good.
But Natalie Portman still deserved better.
It’s not because her character, Sam, gets filed under the Manic Pixie Dream Girl banner. There is space for Manic Pixie Dream Girls. It can be fun to play around with archetypes, embrace them or subvert them. Garden State, after all, was very well-reviewed upon its release, not the least of which was motivated by the performances within the movie. Portman gave Sam everything.
However, that’s the rub. It’s all more unfair because Portman gives Sam every inch she can given the script and the character. But Sam, by virtue of serving a role to enlighten and grow Zach Braff’s Andrew Largeman, can never be more than that functional role. She is two-dimensional by necessity. Anything more changes the impact of the movie for an audience hungry for triteness, and those who do remember it fondly probably wouldn’t if that changed.
It’s like watching Simone Biles play hopscotch. It can be wildly entertaining at times, and the performer’s skill is certainly on display. It might be the best, most unique hopscotch performance — something no human has ever done before. Still, the audience can’t help but wonder what would happen if rudimentary restrictions were lifted. We want to see her cut loose. We want the full spectrum of her capabilities.
Portman intimated in an interview with Elle: “It certainly is stifling to be the one who’s enacting someone else’s idea of how a young woman should behave.” And I wonder if Portman understood this while she was in that 2004 moment more fully than she lets on in the film.
Because there’s that hamster funeral scene where Andrew confides in Sam what he’s doing in town — visiting for his mother’s funeral. Sam, despite just meeting Andrew, is moved to tears. If you are a broodingly soulful young man needing to learn how to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures, this is probably such a charmingly raw and quirky response.
It is also possibly a glimmer of Portman knowingly and ever so subtly overacting the reaction, as if to say: “Wow, this is stifling. But if you want Manic Pixie Dream Girl, boy, you are going to get it.”
I’m not Stanislavski. I don’t know acting. This perception could be wrong. It could merely be a byproduct of Sam’s character needing to fulfill that quirky archetype and therefore existing in relation to Andrew’s character instead of existing cohesively and independently.
But I like to think Portman knew and realized in that particular moment that Sam was holding her back.
After all, a year later, she shaved her head for V for Vendetta (which we all did during quarantine because the barbershops were closed. Yeah. That’s the reason.).