Garden State shows us the sickness of its protagonist, Andrew Largeman, in its opening scene. Andrew dreams he’s aboard an airplane that’s about to crash. But while all the other passengers are panicking, Andrew remains perfectly calm, even taking the time to adjust his air-conditioning vent. As this scene illustrates, Andrew’s sickness is that he is paralyzed, unable to connect with his own emotions and to other people. The film goes on to show how Andrew’s soul is cleansed and how he is reconciled, both to himself and to others. As we will see, the movie often uses water as a symbol to emphasize various aspects of Andrew’s spiritual sickness and healing.
Water is most clearly used as a symbol when Andrew, Sam, and Mark visit the “ark” at the bottom of the quarry. It begins to rain right before they enter the ark and they get drenched upon leaving it. And it is during the rainstorm that Andrew, for the first time, begins to break out of his paralysis. He begins connecting with his emotions, as is evidenced both when he is touched by Albert’s speech and when he looks over “the abyss” and yells at the top of his lungs. And he begins connecting with others, as this is the first time he and Sam kiss and embrace.
The symbolism of the ark and rain shower couldn’t be clearer. Just as the rainstorm experienced by Noah and his ark marked the cleansing of the earth (from sin), so also the rainstorm experienced by Andrew and Albert’s ark marks the cleansing of Andrew (from his paralysis).
It is also significant to note the water symbology attached to the second part of Andrew’s healing—his discussion with Sam in his father’s bathtub. It is during this conversation that Andrew more fully opens up; most notably, it is here that he cries for the first time. That this conversation takes place in a tub intended for physical cleansing draws attention to the spiritual cleansing that is occurring.
Water also plays a symbolic role before Andrew’s healing. It is significant that, before he is healed, Andrew tries to avoid water and even tries to stop it from appearing. For instance, he is the only one who doesn’t jump in the pool when he goes swimming with Sam and some friends. And later in the film, he walks into his father’s bathroom and turns off the dripping faucet in the bathtub. Since water is a symbol for cleansing, it seems that these actions emphasize that Andrew is not yet ready to be cleansed, that he’s perhaps deliberately running from it.
Tears are another important symbol in the film. Sam is characterized by tears: she cries when she learns that Andrew’s mom has died, when she learns of his tragic childhood, and when he leaves her at the airport. Given this and the symbolism of water as a healing agent, it follows that Sam’s tears underscore that she is the remedy for Andrew’s sickness.
Andrew’s tears are also significant. For the first part of the film, Andrew never cries; he doesn’t cry at his mom’s funeral and we later learn that he hasn’t cried since he was a child. But as Andrew begins to heal, he sheds a tear. Not only is this drop of water a literal sign that he is emotionally reconnecting, but it is also a symbolic proof that he’s being spiritually cleansed.