Garden State: Zach Braff’s Feature Debut, Starring Natalie Portman

Sundance Film Fest 2005–A considerable gap prevails between the level of aspiration and level of execution in Garden State, Zach Braff’s feature directorial debut.

A case could be made that every generation needs its own The Graduate, its own coming-of-age story of the character Dustin Hoffman played: A confused, lost youth who has to establish his own identity and self-worth. Garden State is a variation of The Graduate, albeit Braff’s film has a stronger and more naive romantic angle, and it displays lesser animosity toward the older generation than the 1967 picture.

Featuring the debut of Zach Braff (until now better known as Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian on NBC’s long-running sitcom, Scrubs), who also wrote and stars, Garden State is an honest and sporadically charming, but it’s also tedious in its direction and uneven in its technical aspects. The uniformly accomplished ensemble, headed by Braff, Natalie Portman, Ian Holm, and Peter Sarsgaard, compensates considerably for the film’s deficiencies.

In an unprecedented mode, after causing a bidding war at the Sundance Film Festival, the film was picked up by two distributors: Fox Searchlight (domestically) and Miramax (internationally). The film’s rawness, messy structure, and naivet all weaknesses in most films, might be the very qualities that endear Garden State to younger audiences, who are flocking to see the picture, turning it into the most popular indie to be released this summer.

Braff is well cast as Andrew Largement (nicknamed Large), a twentysomething, and moderately successful TV actor living in Los Angeles who hasn’t been home in nine years. The sudden death of his mother precipitates a moral-existential crisis that forces Large to come to terms with his past, particularly his domineering father Gideon (Ian Holm), whose influence he has been unable to shake off even while living far away from him.

After a long absence, Large is stunned to finds his old acquaintances living their quiet, unique lives as gravediggers, fast food knights, and the panderers of pyramid schemes. Meanwhile, back at home, he does his best to avoid a long-simmering but inevitable confrontation with his father. In the course of one crucial weekend, Large runs into people he once knew, hangs out and smokes dope with them. Most importantly, he falls in love for the first time in his life.

The narrative picks some momentum when, by a twist of fate, Large meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a girl who is everything he isn’t. A blast of color, hope and quirks, Sam becomes his sidekick. Her warmth and fearlessness give Large the courage to open his heart up and absorb the joys and pains of everyday life.

Large belongs to a generation of men in their late twenties who are “beyond adolescence,” but for whatever reason, still feel overwhelming, irresolvable anxieties about life. Braff presents a universal male fantasy of how “the right woman who comes along at the right time” can save a man and rescue him from himself. Here it’s Sam, a woman so full of hope and so excited to be alive that she alters his very existence. Baffled by Sam’s energy and charm, Large falls for her because she’s his polar opposite.

Initially, Large thinks of his emotionally distant father-psychiatrist as a manipulative patriarch, who in his effort to make him happy has ruined and damaged him by prescribing addictive medication. The confrontation between Large and his father touches a deep chord. giving voice to issues that are often left unsaid between sons and their father. Unlike many youths who can never gather strength to encounter their fathers, Large does that, and makes sure that his father has heard him. After the encounter, confrontation, Large realizes that that his father is just a little old man who, in one crucial scene, is reduced to his whities and crying on his bed.

Braff says he wanted to make a smart love story for contemporary youths that suggests what it means to come home after a long absence. In defiance of the well-made, three-act Hollywood movie, he opts for a loose narrative in which events unfold more spontaneously, as they would in ordinary live.

But Garden State is naive and may have too much heart to qualify as smart. Basically, it’s another coming-of-age yarn about that awkward period between adolescence and adulthood. The film is at its most candid in depicting the feelings of a teenager who couldn’t wait to get out of New Jersey (standing in for every state), only to realize that the West Coast is not as alluring as they had expected, and that they’re more homesick and needing of roots than willing to admit. In other words, it’s a movie about the changing meanings of home and state that comes with maturity, from that of a dump to a garden state. Indeed, as the title implies, Garden State comes across as a love poem to New Jersey, a state that’s often been reviled in literature and film.

Unfortunately, the film’s psychology is too simplistically Freudian, and its biblical references too obvious. Originally, the movie’s title was Large’s Ark, after the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. Like Noah, who put the animals and people he liked on the ark to save them from the apocalypse, Large is trying to begin anew by rescuing the parts of himself he likes.

Also overtly symbolic is the water imagery. Water flows through the film like an ever-widening stream, from the bathtub of Large’s mother where she committed suicide, to a giant swimming pool, to an ark teetering on the abyss in the rain. The gathering storm that arrives at the movie’s climax serves as dramatic punctuation to Large’ maturation, his willingness to admit his love for Sam, and bear the consequences.

Unlike The Graduate, the family plays a larger, more positive role in Garden State. Large is only child of a deeply depressed mother and distantly cold father, while Sam comes from a loving, highly unconventional family. Visually, their homes reflect the dichotomy of their respective personalities. Large’s house is as spare and colorless as his family life, whereas Sam’s home is chaotic and brightly hued.

Braff claims to have been inspired by the work of Woody Allen, the vet New York auteur and triple threat as writer-director-star. However, judging by what’s on screen, Allen’s influence is not evident, though it’s a positive sign for the novice director to aspire that high.