A breakout hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Garden State is The Graduate for Generation Y - or, more fittingly, Generation Why? "People my age are not getting married right away," says 29-year-old writer/director/star Zach Braff (best known until now as Dr John `JD' Dorian on Scrubs). "We have more time to question ourselves and everything around us."
Like Mike Nichols' slumming-of-age classic, it follows a young man in stasis, Large (Braff), doing tail-spins at life's crossroad. The possible paths spread out before him: return to LA and his moderate success as a TV actor; aimlessly smoke pot with his old classmates; confront his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm) as to why, exactly, he prescribed anti-depressants to a nine year old; or finally shrug off his emotional paralysis and make a go of it with the effervescent Sam (Portman).
Discarding the traditional three-act structure to ensure we're never quite certain where Large, or the film itself, will come to rest, Braff's screenplay makes a few wrong turns as it saunters here and dawdles there. No matter - - it also makes some wondrous discoveries along the way, eventually emerging as a fragile celebration of love and life: untainted and uncynical, unbounded and unabashed.
Lensed soft and spongy to see the world through Large's Lithium-glazed eyes, the first half of Garden State is cosily oddball - the work of a first-timer straining to establish his indie credentials. It wants to be loved, almost begging critics to dust down those clichés ("quirky", "kooky", "offbeat") as our ashen-faced hero ricochets between colourful friends. Over here is an armour-clad waiter (Jim Parsons) working at a medieval diner. Over there is a spaced-out millionaire (Denis O'Hare), inventor of `silent velcro'. And here, there and everywhere is best mate Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), a stoner gravedigger who pockets jewellery off the dead. Large pootles between them on his archaic motorbike replete with sidecar, gazing on bemusedly as even the town's pets act like screwball misfits.
It's every bit as funny and adorable as Braff would hope, but the drive for originality makes it peculiarly unoriginal - - eccentricities by numbers. Yet not unlike Large binning his Lithium to start experiencing emotions for the first time, Garden State shrugs off its affectations to develop its own personality. It too begins to feel, gently warming up until it glows with the sunny radiance of a virgin bride. Fitting, really, given Large and Sam's relationship is charmingly chaste.
Not so much feel-good as feel-pure, this beautifully acted love story is an invigorating breeze in our sceptical times. Eternal sunshine of the spotless soul, anyone?