Garden State

Andrew Largeman's (Zack Braff) journey throughout "Garden State" seems to be a testament on the meaning of liberation. Going from his struggling acting life in Los Angeles to his hometown in New Jersey, where he witnesses his mother's funeral, Andrew is in the mist of confronting difficult issues. One of the biggest issues is coming to terms with his psychologist father (Ian Holm), whom he has distanced himself from for many years because he has put him on powerful antidepressants for most of his life. The reason for this I will not reveal but it has caused Andrew to feel as if his father has controlled his life in a way.

In showing how Andrew Largeman finds himself again, "Garden State" makes a good choice in putting him in every one of its scenes. Since this film is really about Largeman, because he is in every scene, we see a progression in his character as time goes on. At the beginning, we sense that Andrew feels rather numb and alienated but then as the film progresses, he becomes more energetic and liberated. This gradual change in his character is highlighted clearly in the cinematography, a key method in showing Andrew's psychological state.

For a directorial debut, I must say Zack Braff has given me a completely different impression than from his regular role in the "Scrubs" TV series. One might think that for a directorial debut coming from a TV actor would be uneven and at best, formulaic and uninspired. That's not the case here with "Garden State." Braff shows he knows how to handle directing and storytelling yet at the same time, showing a vision that clearly establishes himself as an auteur. Examples of this are the tense moments when Andrew is around his father.

A lesser film would go for theatrics and end up being very talky in dialogue, but instead, Andrew and his father's moments together are more subtle. Whenever we see both of them together, they talk but when they talk, their relationship is forced. There's a sense of silence at times, which shows they feel uncomfortable seeing each other after the lack of good communication for about a decade.

Of course, one might think that from the way I'm describing "Garden State" so far, the film is on the more serious side. It's actually more funny than serious but even describing the film as a comedy wouldn't do justice for it. The film is more of an endearing account on how Andrew Largeman embraces himself for the first time in his life, after abandoning the medication he's been on for a long time. We see more of how Andrew gets in touch with the community he left behind. Soon it's evident that Andrew isn't the only one dealing with complicated issues. Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), one of his friends from high school, has high ambitions but unfortunately, his constant use of pot-smoking has lowered his motivation and instead works as a grave digger.

The center point of this film is when Andrew meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a free-spirited girl who even has psychological problems of her own, not to mention a bad habit of compulsively lying. How the two's relationship grows in the film is more focused on their conversations and adventures than focusing on the love situations. It's a great relief that Zack Braff chooses to wait on the intimate moments and focus on what draws Andrew and Sam together.

There are moments in "Garden State" that appear as if they might progress into sexual situation but Braff as a director is more patient than that. If you might recall in the trailer, there's a distant long shot of Andrew and Sam by the fireplace. Usually an image like involving a couple might lead to a romantic moment but it's much more than that. It's less focused on body contact and more on comfort.

In noting that, it is pleasing that Zack Braff allows his actors to perform in a more natural way, instead of the usual strain which can lead to theatrical acting. Natalie Portman, for one, takes great advantage of this. If you thought her performance in the Star Wars prequels was lackluster, I can guarantee you her role in "Garden State" is a complete 360 degree turn. As Sam, Portman creates a character that can't be easily defined. Yes, she is free-spirited and innocent to a certain extent but she is also quite outspoken and doesn't hesitate to speak her mind.

A kind of complexity in a role like this would be rather difficult to pull off in the theatrical style but Portman's acting here Peter Sarsgaard's performance as Mark is interesting because he's able to manage being likeable and intelligent, even when he smokes pot. There is also plenty to like in the dialog, which sounds a lot more authentic than what characters usually say in movies.

The time span for the storyline in "Garden State" is only a few days and within the film's actual running time, it seems as if the days go much longer. This works to the film's advantage because we spend a lot of time following Andrew as he gets off the anti depressants and starts getting in touch with friends and others in his hometown. "Garden State" is one of those films which isn't so much concerned about plot but about characters and the desire to allow us to spend time with them and find out what makes them unique, how bizarre or weird they might be.

GARDEN STATE (Zach Braff, US, 2004). THEME: PSYCHIATRIST'S FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS. Fresh, tender, quirky and genuine, the adjectives just want to pour forth to describe this marvelous romantic comedy/coming-of-age story. First time writer-director Braff also stars as Andrew, a 25 year old, marginally employed actor in LA who returns home to New Jersey for his mother's funeral. He hasn't been around his old friends or seen much of his father since he was sent off to boarding school at 16. Several disparate forces move Andrew now to rethink his life. The film concerns these developments that will reshape his future.

The first, of course, is the death of Andrew's mother. We never meet her but learn that she had been rendered paraplegic years earlier, when she fell in the kitchen, after being pushed by an angry 9 year old Andrew. Plagued by poorly controlled emotions after that (what kid wouldn't be?), Andrew was placed on medications to blunt his moods by his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm, in a minor role), and had remained emotionally numbed by meds for the past 15 years.

He was dispatched to boarding school for the same reason, we also learn, to decompress the emotional angst in the family household. Amazingly, we are informed of Andrew's past without resort to a single flashback. Dissatisfied with the course of his career and life in LA, Andrew decides to stop taking his mood stabilizing medication upon learning of his mother's death. Back in the suburb where he grew up, reunions with old chums now contribute to Andrew's unfolding self reappraisal.

More importantly, he meets Samantha – Sam (Natalie Portman), an inquisitive young woman who seems to care about and accept him from the getgo. In the end it is the budding romance with Sam that catalyses Andrew's resolve to change his life. But this could not have occurred without him freeing himself of the enormous burden of guilt for causing his mother's paralysis, a burden only made worse by his father's misguided "treatment" of Andrew's non-existent mood disorder and his virtual banishment from the family.

He confronts his father about these matters in one of the film's more moving scenes. Among several reasons why this film works so well, perhaps the most important is the lack of schmaltz. There is not a single note of over-the-top melodrama or pathos here. No shouting or screaming. We are never insulted by any belaboring of the obvious psychological nuances in play. Braff writes with respect for the intelligence of his audience. Many little scenes and plot twists delight because they are unexpected gifts. The off key pop solo sung by Andrew's aunt at Mother's funeral.

Various people living in odd circumstances. One old buddy got rich selling his invention of soundless Velcro and now trundles down the corridors of his unfurnished McMansion in a golf cart. Another buddy, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), sells jewelry he acquires in a highly unusual manner. Braff also writes simple yet refreshing dialogue, with plenty of offbeat humor, yet none of it is strained, nothing is played self-consciously for laughs. Braff himself has a warm, easy-to-watch screen presence. He can say nothing during the lull in a conversation, while the camera remains focused on his face, and it feels right. Portman and Sarsgaard are also genuine, each wonderfully relaxed in their roles.

Production design is superb: details in every scene are arranged well, and the photography, by Lawrence Sher, is - like the story and the acting – unpretentious, never distracting, tricky or cute. This film never seems to manipulate us; instead it engages us, arouses our curiosity and amusement, bids us gently to care about Andrew and Sam and even Mark, leaving us entertained in the best sense. This movie is as confident, as secure in itself, as comforting, as a well worn pair of house slippers or your favorite reading chair. A splendid film. Grade: A- (09/04)