A lovely independent film made the rounds of the world's festivals last spring, got commercial distribution this summer, and now is making a splash in theatres across the country. The film is Zach Braff's "Garden State," and it has many virtues. For one, Braff, who wrote it, directed it and stars in it, has the chops in all three arts to carry his ideas boldly through from start to, well, almost the very end. And there's nothing wrong with that. For another, his cast is note-perfect in playing out some marvelous scenes with unexpected panache.
Braff is Andrew Largeman, young struggling actor in Los Angeles and cook's helper in a Vietnamese restaurant there. He's also the son of the well-known New Jersey psychiatrist Gideon Largeman (Ian Holm), who has managed to stick Andrew with a load of guilt so large Andrew should probably carry it around in a wheelbarrow. It seems that when Andrew was nine he may have left the dryer door open, whereupon his mother tripped and hit her head on it, becoming a helpless quadriplegic. Ever since, Doctor Gideon has been a) blaming Andrew and b) prescribing medications to keep Andrew from ever expressing an emotion.
But now his mother has died - drowning in the bathtub, as it happens - and Andrew comes home for the funeral, leaving his meds back in L.A. At the cemetery he meets his old high-school pals, who are gravediggers there. One of them, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), introduces him to the old gang, a loose-knit group that is definitely not drug-free, and soon Andrew is acting like a real person again. He consults a psychiatrist, Dr. Cohen (Ron Liebman), whose advice is to find another doctor. And in the waiting room there he also meets beautiful and funny Sam (Natalie Portman), who wears a helmet on her head for reasons that only come clear later in the film.
Have I made too much of too little? Well, that's what the best films do. They can take a small topic and make it stand in for whole worlds. Braff hasn't quite managed that but he has given us at least a New Jersey-sized chunk of pleasure. Scenes are shot and assembled with an odd and affectionate and quirky look that's more effective than most major studio productions. The shots are framed and lit so as to reveal overtones of character and relationships. Braff is a fine and understated actor and his cast is a good match. My only complaint, and I feel a little of Andrew's early guilt for bringing it up, is that he's contrived an ending that's both too long in the buildup and too trivial to serve as the film's climax. Nevertheless "Garden State" is lovely and fun and inventive. It's a bright spot in a dismal summer.