Written and directed by “Scrubs” star Zach Braff, “Garden State” is quirky film loaded with understated wit and insight about troubled young people finding their way out the ether of adolescence. Andrew Largeman (Braff) is, in fact, sedated. He’s spent most of his life on lithium prescribed by his estranged psychiatrist father, Gideon (Sir Ian Holm). Early in the film, we see Andrew sitting in an airplane oblivious to the panic around him... panic from fear that the plane is close to crashing in a severe storm.
He is returning from Los Angeles, where he has some celebrity as a TV actor, to his hometown in New Jersey for the funeral of his mother, a longtime paraplegic. On meeting many of his old schoolmates, including doper/ gravedigger Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), we learn that Large (Andrew’s nickname) has largely appeared on T.V. as mentally disabled characters. Sam (a scene-stealing Natalie Portman), whom he meets in a neurologist’s office, is convinced that he wasn’t acting in those roles. “Aren’t you really retarded?” she asks. Large attributes his typecasting to his overly medicated state. Large makes a soul connection with Sam, whose epilepsy causes her to wear a funny foam helmet. In one of the film’s sweetest scenes, Sam shows Large how she liberates her feelings by making funny noises. “This is your chance,” she says, “to do something that has never, ever been done before and will never be copied throughout human existence. If nothing else, you’ll be remembered as the only person who ever did this.” She does a wacky little dance, accompanied by a weird sound. Large manages to squeak softly.
The two find themselves falling love as she follows him through his strange hometown odyssey. The journey unearths a deep, dark secret, which almost turns what was whimsical into a whine fest. However, after visiting an eccentric couple living literally on the edge of the abyss, Large has a revelation leading to his embrace of love, life, sobriety and Sam.
While nowhere near as powerful as its predecessor (“The Graduate”), “Garden State” is a welcome whirlpool in the sea of cinema conformity dominating the summer of 2004.