Andrew Largeman (Braff) has shambled through life in a lithium-induced coma. Only when he receives a call from his estranged father telling him that his mother has died suddenly does he return to his New Jersey home. A mildly successful TV actor now living in Los Angeles, ‘Large’ hasn’t been back to the ‘Garden State’ in nine years, and the film charts with cheery poignancy his return.
Garden State is a highly original slice of Americana from promising first time writer/director (and NBC’s ‘Scrubs’ mainstay) Zach Braff. It mines the same seam of weird and wonderful suburbia as previously glorified in the likes of Rushmore (1999), Wonder Boys (2000) and Donnie Darko (2002), and, like these films, refuses to condescend to or moralise about its subject matter.
Little happens in the Garden State, and the key emotional confrontations are filmed with unflustered detachment. It’s a mood film, almost episodic in its reel-by-reel introduction of strange characters and odd images. While this may make for an ultimately bitty experience for some, the meandering narrative is certainly not without its charms.
Braff, as befits a director who acts, has assembled a fine cast. His own blank-eyed presence typifies the perfect stranger-in-a-strange land, and his curious collection of goofs and oddballs is painted with affection. The two revelations here are Portman, banishing her hitherto ‘Star Wars’ woodenness with a performance of vitality, sexiness and wounded self-esteem. This is her best work work since Leon (1994), and her gamine looks are well-suited to the mood of the film. Equally impressive is Sarsgaard’s doped-out best friend struggling to come to terms with his of slacker identity. His Mark is the moral compass of the film – foul-mouthed, bitter, yet strangely wise. Holm has little to do (deliberately so, as his presence in Large’s life has always been emotional rather than physical), but his end-reel confrontation with his son balances pathos and guilt without ever feeling pat.
The film impresses with its keen sense of character and incident told coupled with a bold visual style. Surreal scenes that might seem out of place are cleverly integrated into the film (the opening dream sequence, a detached gas pump, a couple living in a modern-day Ark) and there is a general sureness of touch throughout.
Braff’s grasp of music is commanding – the soundtrack is a masterly collection of songs that mirror mood in the film. The use of The Shins’ ‘New Slang’ when Large and Sam first meet is clever, while Coldplay, Zero 7 and Nick Drake also lend a hip veneer to proceedings. Eagle-eared viewers will also make out Simon and Garfunkel; their inclusion seems a deliberate ploy by Braff to summon up the sprit of The Graduate (1967) and late 60s slackerdom that Garden Sate seeks to update. Indeed, it is tempting to see Braff’s debut as a noughties version of Mike Nichols’ seminal work –parental rift, confused sense of purpose, transition to adulthood and the pains of ‘home’ are adroitly revisited in Garden State. And instead of Dustin Hoffman shouting behind glass, Braff’s heartfelt yell into a bottomless abyss seems the ultimate symbol of confusion and uncertainty.
‘You feel homesick for a place that doesn’t exist’, a character tells Large at one point. Indeed, this notion of ‘home’ is an insistent presence in Garden State. Whether at the bottom of an abyss, in a trailer-trash condo, or a glacial apartment, the film’s abiding legacy is to skew our preconceptions of what ‘home’, and more importantly, ‘coming home’ means to Large. In this instance, the film’s final moments are a powerful reminder of what ‘home’, despite its weirdness and claustrophobia, can provide us.