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The Independent Critic

Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm
Zach Braff
Rated PG-13
102 Mins.
Fox Searchlight
 "Garden State" Review 
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There are those films in life that just zero in on everything I want, everything I need from a filmgoing experience. It hasn't happened often in my filmgoing life, but when it happens it reduces me to this orgasmic state of joy. Such a film induces laughter and tears and feelings and thoughts. Such a film changes me in ways that I had never imagined. Such a film achieves my highest esteem...not so much because it is perfect in every way imaginable, but because of the beauty and the wonder and the magic it has added to my life. "Garden State" is such a film.

I found myself experiencing fits of laughter and tears for a good two hours following my viewing of "Garden State," the Grand Jury Prize nominated film from the Sundance Film Festival written by, directed by and starring Zach Braff.

Braff, best known for his work on the television series "Scrubs," brings to the screen a story with such great light and life that I am in awe. Seldom have I seen a writer exhibit such great passion and dignity towards his characters...yet, each character here is treated with reverence in both examining strengths and weaknesses. It is truly a masterful script.

"Garden State" is the journey of Andrew Largeman, a 26-year-old Los Angeles actor who lives in a medication-induced numbness that he has experienced since a tragic incident involving his mother at the age of 9. This incident shaped Largeman's life from the age of 9 on all the way up to his career choice and, perhaps, even his most noted acting role as a retarded quarterback. I found myself initially irritated by the first few minutes of this felt surface, it felt felt, well, numb. Then, as the film developed it suddenly occurred to me that it was numb. Braff's script and acting had so beautifully captured Largeman's numbed out life that I, sitting in the audience, was having the exact same experience. It was uncomfortable, and I wanted it to change.

Every moment of this film...every movement, every nuance, every gesture, every word had a purpose. Seldom have I reached the end of a film and felt myself exploding with emotions...that is precisely what I felt at the end of "Garden State." I felt like I had been on Largeman's journey.

The performances here are quietly exhilarating...Braff doesn't work overtime "selling the drama" of Largeman's existence. Instead, he opts to experience the mundane, the simple, the daily peaks and valleys of Largeman's life. We are not overwhelmed with dramatic confrontations with a father who doesn't understand...We aren't slammed in the face by awkward confrontations with friends...instead, it's as if we're invited to share the blossoming of a young man...his growing awareness that he's okay...that life is okay...that feelings aren't good or bad...they just are. And, that's okay.

As the young lady who helps him break through his numb existence, Natalie Portman gives the stellar performance in this film. Hers is a performance of innocence and simplicity coupled by a great passion for life and yes, ironically, truth. Portman's eyes, her face, her lips, her body language, her words...they all communicate so beautifully here. I am sitting here in tears even thinking about her performance...such complete and utter authenticity as is seldom seen onscreen.

In supporting roles, we have among the finest ensemble casts ever seen onscreen. Ian Holm is understatedly magnificent as Largeman's psychiatrist father...Holm creates a character that is difficult to understand, impossible to like but equally impossible to hate. Holm's performance created the sort of feeling I'm sure Largeman must have felt in trying to come to terms with his father. Their last scene together in the father's bedroom is one of the simplest, yet most beautiful father/son scenes I've witnessed on film.

Peter Sarsgaard continues to build an impressive resume, and his performance here as Largeman's best friend...who, ironically, is a gravedigger is filled with such beauty. His closing scenes are a reminder of the true beauty, dependability and absoluteness of friendship.

Every character in this film is wondrous and essential. Equally as miraculous is that they are all wonderfully cast. Turning in stupendous performances in smaller roles are Method Man, Jean Smart, Ann Dowd and Ron Leibman. Even the performance of Amy Ferguson, in a five-minute scene evolving around "Spin the Bottle," stays vividly within my memory.

Adding to the beauty of this film is a wondrous soundtrack of accompanying music and songs. Not only did the music fit the mood of the film, but the lyrics of the songs chosen were stunningly appropriate. Standouts include Coldplay's "Don't Panic," Colin Hay's "Just Don't Think I'll Ever Get Over You," "New Slang" and "Caring is Creepy" from The Shins and "Let Go" from Frou Frou.

The strongest technical aspect of this film for me is the lighting...NEVER have I seen such impressive use of light technically and metaphorically. Fluorescent lights, room lights, sunlight...all beautifully used and beautifully photographed. Additionally, this film features perhaps the best cinematography I've ever seen within the context of a contemporary film. So many scenes stayed with me following the many short, snippets of film painted delicately onscreen and embedded within my memory gently yet firmly. Even now, as I sit here, I am reminded of scene after scene of beauty...the way characters moved, the way they touched...the looks in their eyes...all beautifully captured on film.

I have seen some who questioned the ending of this film...perhaps, they say, a bit too conventional. Yet, for me, that was just another strike of brilliance for Braff. For once, Largeman chose to live life, to not be numb, to not return back to safety but to take a risk and to honor his feelings. A conventional ending? Perhaps. Yet, it was the ending he had worked for the entire film. Bravo!

"Garden State" is a achieves my highest rating not because it achieves technical perfection...while it excels in every area, "Garden State" achieves my highest rating because as I sit here remembering the nearly two hours I spent on this journey my body is trembling, my heart is racing and my entire being tingles with the excitement and joy I felt at being part of this journey. "Garden State" changed my life. That is the highest recommendation I can give!


© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic