Sometimes a film comes around and after you watch it, you end up thinking about it for days. Maybe it sits with you, not because it was incredibly emotional, or because the characters went through some volatile love affair that you relate to, dread, or are in the midst of yourself—but because it’s about the simple human condition to get to know yourself better—to trust yourself more. Such was the case for me and Broken Gardenias.
Directed by Kai Alexander and written by Alma S. Grey, this dark comedy follows Jenni (also played by Grey), an orphaned 20-something “semi-savant” who works at a plant nursery where she clumsily pisses off her boss and the customers, only to retreat home at night to a house full of judgy, self-absorbed roommates who think she’s maybe the weirdest person on the planet. Truth is: Jenni is weird. But she’s caught in a world where being weird is considered wrong or off-putting, and she doesn’t yet know how to be comfortable in her own skin or mind.
Jenni’s world reaches an all-time low when she’s hospitalized, loses her job and is kicked out of her home. It all seems like some kind of a sick joke, but far worse and more realistic than the slough of jokes Jenni often rattles off, even if no one is listening. After Jenni tries to take her life by hanging herself from a tree in a park, she wakes up covered in leaves to find a buzzed-cut, leather jacket, ripped jeans-wearing girl slicing bites off a peach. The name’s Sam, not short for Samantha (played by Ashley Morocco). She asks if Jenni, who appears scared and mortified, has never met nice people before. “This is the face of a nice person,” she says, pointing to her chin dimple in the hopes that her lightheartedness will make Jenni feel less terrible.
It’s already clear these two are about to embark on some kind of adventure; we’re just not sure what it is yet. My heart is already racing, because somehow, despite Jenni’s obliviousness and her timid disposition, there’s some evidence of chemistry between these two girls. Sam begins asking Jenni questions about herself, who tells her that she was taken away from her father shortly after he mother died, in Los Angeles, and she’s never known what happened to him. Sam suggests they go find him after she relays her own troubling experiences with coming out and getting kicked out on her own. Consumed in her own pitfalls, Jenni is mostly concentrated on the slow realization that she is at a fork in the road. She’s never left the city she was dropped off in since she was six. It’s settled then—they definitely must go to LA!
Unaware of Sam’s plan, as if there is one, the two end up on a driveway in front of some house, who I’m assuming is an ex lover of Sam, and she runs out with the keys to a red Jeep, instructing Jenni to hurriedly get in the car. Yes, this journey requires a wild, impromptu car-stealing scene. While on the road down to LA, Sam and Jenni encounter everything from a homophobic psychopathic pervert, to the natural soak of the ocean roaring against the rocky Pacific shore, to an eccentric lady stoner with a car that looks like Priscilla Presley’s boudoir, and the discovery that Jenni isn’t quite as evolved as Sam. Her mini tutorials tell us she’s made her way through the uncertain depths of living self-reliantly in a way that Jenni has been to afraid to. “The world could end tomorrow,” Sam reminds Jenni, striking a chord with all of us, really—that there’s no greater time than the present, to set your mind to something you didn’t think was possible, to put a little faith in yourself—to just believe you can do it, whether that means embracing your aloneness, searching for someone, or getting behind the wheel of a car, maybe even for the first time. By the way, I say this with complete adoration: Sam (A. Morocco) kind of resembles Miley Cyrus, and they even have a similar dialect, which I found highly intriguing and beyond awesome.
In LA, Sam and Jenni go all Law & Order on the street people of Skid Row, asking if they recognize the man in Jenni’s photo — her father, Jack. Then again, the photo is from the ’70s, and it’s a faded Polaroid. Eventually, a character in a wig and bright lipstick appears and says, creepily, “I know who you’re looking for.” Sam tries to warn Jenni, that she’s being hustled. It can’t be real—does this person really know where her father is? Jenni may not appear brave, or sharp, but her naïve sense of the world puts her at the front of line for learning a thing or two about courage. Now, her memory of her childhood in LA is slowly coming back—a blue Mustang, a store with Jesus on crutches in the window, a house she once lived at. But then Sam runs into an old fling (of course!), Denise, who invites her to a wild party up in the hills, and Jenni tags along.
While Sam is off having her “reunion” with Denise, which includes totally ignoring Jenni and the mission they came down to LA for in the first place, Jenni ends up tripping on a psychedelic cupcake, and almost gets tangled up in a spicy threesome. She also ends up unintentionally angering the owner of the house party, so she makes a run for it, because the lonely girl must now face being alone in the city she was born in — broken or not, she must put her own life’s pieces back together, and that means finding her dad, no matter what it takes.
I won’t spoil the end of the film, because I want everyone I know (or don’t know) to watch this so badly, and experience all of the highs and lows in real time. What I will say is this: I’ve met people like Sam. They’re impressionable and easygoing, and that mix can be precarious. You wonder why it’s so effortless for them—to pop the hood of a car and know where to look for engine trouble, to act nonchalant about something you find so, so, so upsetting, to be swayed by temptation and sex, but to disregard their promise to you, even if it’s unspoken. I’m not saying Sam is a bad person—characters like Sam exist for a reason. They help you, but they don’t hold your hand the whole way, and it’s up to you to decide if you’re OK with their ways.
Jenni must release her anger, and find a way to do so without Sam’s help. In a way, this story has so little to do with Sam and Jenni as a pair, because Jenni’s priority is figuring out how to do her, uninterrupted and unfiltered by fear. Do Sam and Jenni end up together? Can we imagine them living their lives together, forever? Or is this something else?
If anything, Broken Gardenias is about a moment of change in your life, where you can plunge into the dark and let the waves consume you, or, you can give in to the idea that you have the power to control what happens next. Perhaps everything will change once more, and again, and again after that. Perhaps all of this exploring and stumbling around is here because in the future, looking back on the journey will feel all the more necessary, making complete sense only in its retrospect. Jenni’s journey is not in fact the search she takes to find her father, or even the bond she forms with Sam, but the evolution of herself—in which she finally meets her shadows, something we all must do in order to reach the next plateau. In a way, we are all broken—by our past, by our own doubts and limitations. And then we put ourselves together, and many of us meet ourselves for the first time during whatever trip we take. We plant the seed, much like Jenni has—and then we watch it grow.