Films like "Garden State" aren't necessarily rare in terms of premise or spirit, but seldom do they come across with the sort of texture and freshness seen in this auspicious directorial debut from "Scrubs" star Zach Braff. An unconventional, richly observed romantic dramedy, "Garden State" is an intelligent and frequently humorous account of the uncertainties and difficulties confronted at the threshold of adulthood. The movie will be screened in Jackson at Hal & Mal's on Monday, Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m. as part of Crossroads Film Society's series of independent films. It will also be released on home video at the end of this month.
Pulling triple duty as writer, director and star, Braff is 26-year-old Andrew Largeman, a waiter and aspiring television actor summoned from California to his New Jersey hometown after his mother suddenly passes away. Though he's been gone for roughly a decade, Andrew finds himself re-encountering old high school friends, such as kind-hearted burnout Mark (Peter Sarsgaard, "Shattered Glass"), and reconnecting with his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm, the "Lord of the Rings" films). Andrew also rediscovers another important figure—himself—as he decides to discontinue the potent levels of antidepressants he has been taking since childhood.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, "Garden State" contains one of the most believable film romances in recent memory, between Andrew and the whimsical Sam (Natalie Portman, the "Star Wars" prequels). The uninspired, pretentious contrivances of typical movie love stories are gracefully sidestepped here: Andrew and Sam first meet as Andrew's leg is being incessantly humped by a seeing-eye dog. From this chance encounter (and one of the film's best scenes), Braff opts for a slow build with their relationship, unwilling to rush things along with, say, a heated make-out session; his characters are too genuine for that. Sam is everything that Andrew is not, but almost exactly what he needs, and, thanks in particular to Braff's and Portman's remarkable performances (especially hers), every scene they have together displays surprising authenticity.
It is this, Braff's attentive keenness for little moments, that makes "Garden State" shine. The movie's relatively simple plot merely follows Andrew, Sam and Mark (and an assortment of other, though less interesting, characters) around town in the days after the funeral, evolving into a quirky journey of discovery. It's a unique movie that impeccably crosses genre lines, unafraid of its characters' tender flaws—and, moreover, fearless in its ability to find humor in them.
Of course, there are a few screenwriting issues that prevent the film from being a complete triumph. While virtually the entirety of the story is contingent upon Andrew's ability to reconnect with his former friends, the fact that he would slip into old relationships so quickly and easily does occasionally strain credibility. The ending, while presenting precisely the message required by the film's tone and purpose, is somewhat weak: it feels tacked-on and hurried, and is certainly the most predictable moment in such a pleasantly unpredictable film.
Still, "Garden State" manages to rank as one of the year's better films, and shows exciting promise from Braff as a filmmaker. It's a smart story of the emotional challenges faced by 20-somethings, one of family, old friends and new beginnings, perfectly encapsulated in one of the script's most memorable lines: "You know that point in your life when you realize that the house that you grew up in isn't really your home anymore? That idea of home is gone. Maybe that's all family really is: a group of people who miss the same imaginary place." New Jersey isn't an imaginary place, but for 109 easygoing minutes it's definitely worth visiting.
Zach Braff, director
**** (out of five)