The right coast
A journey home to New Jersey opens a young man’s heart in Garden State
Much has been made of the similarities between the Zach Braff-written and -directed Garden State and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. The comparison has validity in that both films quietly underscore the importance and necessity of individuals connecting with others amid the woozy whirlwind of time and circumstance.
Garden State and Lost in Translation are also two films that let their characters really speak to one another, drawing filmgoers even closer to the heart of their protagonists’ journeys. It is a wonder that films like these can even exist in our “hurry up” culture—films confident in their dialogue and story, in which a gentle whisper can speak volumes more than a car bomb explosion. Garden State is a moving, subtle film whose humor and heart are realistically human.
Zach Braff (of television’s Scrubs) is Andrew Largeman, a moderately successful actor in Los Angeles. Andrew receives a call from his estranged father (a stoic Ian Holms) in New Jersey and is informed that his mother has passed away. The call serves as a catalyst for Largeman not only to leave L.A. and return to New Jersey, but also to leave behind the myriad medications prescribed to him by his psychiatrist father that have dulled his senses for a long time.
Returning to New Jersey, Andrew runs into friends from high school, including Mark (a once again excellent Peter Sarsgaard), who digs graves during the day and sucks bong hits at night, and Dave, a friend who’s made millions with his invention of silent Velcro.
Andrew is first reunited with his old friends at a party where everyone is wildly drowning in alcohol, marijuana and hits of ecstasy. Braff’s script makes some not-so-subtle assertions that, one way or another, many of us are medicating ourselves against something in life, be it dead-end lives leading to weekend release or emotions and memories we (or someone close to us, as in the case of Largeman’s father) would rather smother than have to deal with.
At the heart of Garden State is Andrew’s relationship with new female friend Sam (Natalie Portman). Sam is the complete antithesis to Andrew, in that she is wide awake and open to the world, wearing her heart on her sleeve to an almost alarming, naked degree, while Andrew is only now waking up and emerging from the medicated cocoon that kept him from any sort of emotional investment connected to living.
The first time Andrew meets Sam is a scene that best illustrates Garden State’s intimate charm. In a doctor’s office waiting room, she recognizes him as the retarded quarterback from a made-for-TV movie. Amusingly, she is shocked that in real life he suffers no such disability. Sam opens herself not merely through her words and moving to sit beside Andrew, but also by extending her headphones for him to hear the music she’s listening to (The Shins’ “New Slang"). It is an effective image for wanting another to see what it is that we see. What Andrew begins to hear and see takes on greater importance as his world view becomes more intense and colorful thanks to Sam’s influence.
Braff’s auspicious directorial debut is about Largeman’s awakening. The more he moves away from his prescription medicine’s influence and the lithium haze, the easier he understands his own heart and its own infinite expanse. Andrew Largeman’s unique introductions to life’s mysteries make Garden State a smart, personal and memorable film.