Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) returns to his hometown for the funeral of his clinically depressed mother, a journey that reconnects him with some of his past friends. Because the trip coincides with his decision to stop taking his powerful antidepressants, he also begins to reconnect with himself. A chance meeting with Sam (Natalie Portman), a girl also suffering from various maladies, opens up the possibility of rekindling emotional attachments, confronting his psychologist father, and perhaps beginning a new life.
This is the first feature for writer/director/actor Zach Braff, and it's one of those terrific American indie films that make you fall in love with cinema all over again. Set in New Jersey Garden State is a contemporary tale about a young man making peace with himself and his existence. Writer, director and star Braff proves that he is much more than a 'cool young thing' from a cool young TV show. He plays Andrew Largeman, or 'Large', a wannabe actor who journeys home to face the funeral of his disabled mother. Large hooks up with old friends, makes a new one, and, is trying to get off the anti-depressants that have made him sleepwalk through most of his life.
Garden State is littered with interesting characters and acutely crafted performances by a great cast that includes Ian Holm (Lord of the Rings) as Large's dispassionate father Gideon, a psychiatrist who keeps his son in 'tranqs'. Peter Sarsgard (Boys Don't Cry, Kinsey) is Mark, Large's now lapsed best friend from high school, a fellow who has lowered the bar of expectation in order to avoid disappointment. Then there's Natalie Portman (Anywhere But Here, Star Wars) who plays Sam, Large's possible new love-interest if he'll just surrender to it. Comedy actress Jean Smart (Snow Day) also makes a blinder of a cameo as Carol, Mark's laissez-faire, dope-smoking mum who can't quite understand why her grown up boy is such an under-achiever.
With its dark, ironic humour, Garden State starts off like Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude (1971) but, surprisingly and wonderfully, ends up a full-blown dialogue-driven drama, not unlike Richard Linklater's twin love-talk fests Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). Garden State is full of heart. It is a poetic, 'talkie' filled with beautifully written scenes, perfect-imperfect characters and intense personal revelations. And it just keeps surprising - an authentic emotional honesty drives this film all the way as does its graceful cinematic style. (And a cool music soundtrack that includes The Shins) Such a gentle piece of work it is, Garden State spoke to me in a way that only a small handful of American films have of late, which makes me confident in saying that writer/director/actor Zach Braff is absolutely one to watch.