Garden State is the debut offering from Zach Braff (best known from the funny TV show “Scrubs”) who skillfully juggles writing, directing, and acting credits. This is easily one of the most beautiful films of the year, and manages to come off pleasantly sincere without becoming cheesey.
Braff plays Andrew Largeman, Large to his old friends, an aspiring actor (known for his portrayal as a retarded high-school quarterback in a made for TV movie) making his way from Hollywood back to his childhood home in New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. Large has been “medicated” by his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm) ever since he was nine to cope with an accident that left his mother paralyzed. When we meet Large, he is the epitome of stoicism, on so many prescription drugs he can barely grasp awareness of his surroundings, but the death of his mother shakes him enough to leave the meds behind in sunny California.
At the funeral he finds he is unable to grieve his mother’s death due to how heavily medicated his father has kept him, or as his father believes, “until he can forgive himself for what he did to his mother”. Some high school friends turn out to be the cemetery’s grave diggers and invite him to a party that night at the mansion of a former classmate who got absurdly rich from selling his idea for silent velcro. Later, Large wades through the intoxicated crowd, seemingly unable to relate to anyone or anything. He downs some E, plays spin-the-bottle and wakes up with “balls” written across his forehead in marker the next morning. The medicated fog begins to lift and he starts to feel at home.
The next morning, after dashing to a doctor’s appointment, Large meets Sam (Natale Portman), a young, epileptic and compulsive lair who coaxes him out of his shell again. What follows is a beautiful character and relationship study, of finding home again, in this case, a home that doesn’t exist anymore. Garden State nods to other films like Rushmore and The Graduate in terms of similar character development and tone (as well as soundtrack). Everything just seems to click here, great script and a perfectly chosen cast (the best film Portman has been a part of for some time). Every scene gushes with visuals and Braff really shows his chops as he injects a calculated, peaceful symmetry to each shot. It really is a pleasure to watch a film where everything in frame feels scrutinized over. Braff has made a giant mark his first time out, I hope to see lots more films of this caliber from him.