Directed by: Zach Braff
Written by:Zach Braff
Starring: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Ian Holm, Peter Sarsgaard
Released: November 25, 2004
Grade: A-

26-year-old Andrew Largeman (Braff) is an emotionless man with no direction.  Diagnosed with an anger management problem at an early age, Andrew has been on a mixture of strong medication ever since.  Living in Los Angeles and working as a small-time actor, Andrew’s world is “numb”.  He just does what he does.  Nothing provides any enjoyment.  Nothing provides any passion.

Lying in bed and staring blankly at the ceiling, Andrew receives a phone call from his father.  Growing up in New Jersey, Andrew’s relationship with his father was an uneasy one.  The two have seldom spoken since Andrew left home at the age of 16.  Having evading him for almost a decade, this is one phone call Andrew cannot leave unanswered…

Returning home for mother’s funeral, Andrew bumps into some childhood friends.  He decides to take a break from his medication (for better or worse) and agrees to stay in town for a few days to catch up and reminisce.  He also meets a talkative girl named Sam (Portman) after a humorous incident involving a randy dog in a doctor’s waiting room.  It may only be a brief visit but Andrew’s four days back in the Garden State will redefine his existence. 

The story behind Garden State makes it all the more interesting to watch.  Those that watch the entertainingly sarcastic television series Scrubs will recognise Zach Braff.  Not only does the 29-year-old Braff star in Garden State, he is also the man holding the script and the man behind the camera.  Drawing from his own experiences, Braff has broken through as a filmmaker.  On a budget of just $2.5m, his film created a big-time buzz at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.  Competing studios fought hard for the distribution rights with Fox Searchlight finally the knock-out bid.

Unlike many recent Hollywood efforts, this story features two leading characters who aren’t one-dimensional.  You always have a sense that Andrew and Sam are keeping certain parts of themselves from each other.  What we see on the surface isn’t always what lies beneath.  Such rich characters are a dream for any actor and I can understand why Natalie Portman was drawn to the project.  She delivers the film’s standout performance and after favouring more dramatic roles of late, it’s a pleasure to see her playing the fun-loving, effervescent Sam.

Whilst I have praise for him as an actor, Zach Braff isn’t as strong in the director’s chair.  I sensed the film was trying to be too cool with an array of slow-mo and fast-mo scenes.  Other parts were backed by a very loud soundtrack and felt more like a music video.  The best scenes are those where Braff lets the characters do the talking rather than the camera.

In a very weak year for big-budget Hollywood films, Garden State is the perfect refreshment to wipe that clichéd taste from your mouth.