Truly Moving

A Review of GARDEN STATE (2004)
Director: Zach Braff

For a bad start, it was a Monday in the dorm. Mondays are bad enough, and when you're in a place that leaves you little time to watch movies at the theatre, it's worse. I was bored to death, and sick of the usual flicks - and dreaded watching another Hollywood film because I sure wasn't ready to spend the remains of my allowance on something that looked like a mix of Harry Potter, romantic comedy and whodunit. They all leave me somewhat numb.

Just as I thought movies had lost their capacity to 'move' the audiences emotionally, I chanced upon an obscure indie film directed by a little-known guy from New Jersey. And was proved wrong less than two hours later.

Garden State, the feature-length directorial debut from Zach Braff (currently known to Indian viewers as leading man "J.D." and sometime director of Scrubs [Thursday nights 8 pm, Star World]) is a truly heartwarming juxtaposition of arthouse and romantic comedy. All the characters are dysfunctional in some or the other way, especially the main characters Andrew Largeman (Braff) and Samantha (Natalie Portman in a stellar performance). The two share a sparkling chemistry - Sam as a compulsive liar who suffers from epilepsy is a perfect foil to the straight-faced LA TV star Andrew. The latter's mind is numbed by years of drugs prescribed by his psychiatrist father as a cure for his 'angry' youth which resulted in the accident and consequent paralysis of his mother, and he is intrigued by the chirpy yet achingly fragile Sam.

The story is about Andrew's return for his mother's funeral, his meeting with old acquaintances, his discovery of how every single person is a bit of a cracked egg, and ultimately his confrontation with his father and coming to terms with his mother's death. Along the way he finds an unlikely soulmate in the lovely, childlike Sam, and his painful voyage of self-discovery ends on a happy note with doors opening to a new life.

Writer-director-actor Braff reportedly wrote this script while still in college studying film, and it shows in the combination of unusual imagery and the film being centred on people in the 18-30 age group. All the characters are in their mid-twenties, and all are suprisingly vulnerable. For all the talk about adolescence being a passing phase, the movie convinces us that this age that can be the most trying time. One not only has his/her career and personal life in mind, but also starts wondering what direction his/her life is taking. There is subtle maturity and philosophy in every frame.

Technically, the film is quite sound for a debut. There are a few continuity problems, but aside from that the characters are startlingly believable and the story is heartwarming. Braff pays rich tribute to his native New Jersey in the outdoor shots, and the warm amber lighting in the scenes featuring Sam and Andrew lend a strange aura of purity to their intimacy. Portman and Braff won several accolades (including a well-deserved Best Kiss at the MTV Movie Awards) for convincingly etching the childlike, bittersweet romance that blossoms between Andrew and Sam. Braff also brought home a Grammy for the best compilation soundtrack heard in ages, featuring everything from an invocation to Lord Ganesha to Coldplay, Thievery Corporation, The Shins, and Bonnie Sommerville.

For those not following the Golden Globe nominations, Braff has received a nod for best actor in a Comedy/Musical for Scrubs. If Garden State was anything to go by, this was not altogether unexpected, and he is certainly one of the top writer-director-actors to watch out for.

Another character that stands out in the film is Andrew's buddy Mark (finely portrayed by yet another dark horse, Peter Sarsgaard.) Sarsgaard has had roles in Boys Dont Cry, The Man In The Iron Mask, K-19:The Widowmaker, and had made his debut in Dead Man Walking. Just look at the first and the last names among the films listed above - Garden State proves that this is one more character actor who looks set to make it big.

So rent the DVD, sit back and rest assured that humanity is very much alive and kicking. Some 'moving' images do live upto their name.