A review of “Garden State” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: R for language, drug use, and sexuality

Run Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

 

 

Twenty-something is the new adolescence, a contemporary trend Zach Braff (TV’s Scrubs) weaves effortlessly into his offbeat coming-of-age tale.

Andrew Largeman, aka Large (Braff) is coming home again, returning to his New Jersey roots for his mother’s funeral.  Large has been kickin’ it in L.A., waiting tables and picking up B-acting jobs from the bottom of a Lithium-induced haze.

Home isn’t pretty, but its home.  Large’s blue-collar buddies are the definition of dead end; the best of the bunch (as portrayed by the supremely talented Peter Sarsgaard) digs graves for a living and is sure to strike it rich on the next big pyramid scheme. 

Bunking with dad (Ian Holm), a psychiatrist who keeps Large well-supplied with medication, isn’t a picnic either, since father and son exist in a perma-state of awkwardness born of guilt and blame over a freak accident that handicapped mom.

Large needs to find himself, even if it means living without a chemical crutch.  Shades of Benjamin Braddock in a new millennium The Graduate.  Enter situation-savior Sam (Natalie Portman), a quirky young thing sans guile or pretense.  Her fearless spirit and joie-de-vivre is just what the doctor ordered.

Braff is a triple threat (writer, director, star) who works wonders with his spare narrative and funky ensemble.  His is a fantasy of piquant visual pleasures; vivid anti-depressant withdrawals to the greyer shades of the enigmatic Garden State. Creating romance from a foundation of kooky dysfunction almost disguises Braff’s precocious film-school roots and slight penchant for indie clichés.

Portman gives her most important performance since her awe-inspiring work in 1996’s Beautiful Girls. Braff lets his muted angst spill over all with apprehensive but heartfelt relief.

 This is personal stuff – shot in and around Braff’s own hometown of South Orange, N.J. and based on real experience. His is a fresh and original voice, living Large as it were.