No scrubs

To begin, let me address the freshmen reading this review: Many of you have left your hometowns for the first time, and you may be feeling a certain lonely uneasiness commonly mislabeled as homesickness. In truth, you’re experiencing the aftershocks of a realization that there really is no such thing as home anymore. Such a certainty doesn’t exist for college students and 20-somethings. The closest thing we have are dorm rooms and apartments in which we live, eat and sleep. We can return to our roots and visit our old stomping grounds, but any real sense of home remains illusory, temporary or devoid from this strange limbo.

It is this feeling of being cut adrift, detachment from the world in search for a direction that lies at the heart of the new film “Garden State” (Fox Searchlight), “Scrubs” alumnus Zach Braff’s outstanding writing-directing debut.

Andrew Largeman (Braff), a New Jersey native who left home nine years ago and wound up waiting tables, acting and dealing with the drudgery of everyday life in Los Angeles, awakens one day to a phone call from his estranged father (Ian Holm) telling him his mother has died. His return home, reunion with old friends (including Peter Sarsgaard) and blooming relationship with a quirky, slightly crazy young woman named Sam (Natalie Portman) begin to awaken something in Largeman.

Whereas in “The Graduate” (to which “Garden State” has meritoriously been compared), Benjamin Braddock explored illicit territory in a new era of sexual freedom, Andrew Largeman’s struggle is internal. In a world where chemical measures such as Paxil and Zoloft are presented as healthy solutions to elements of the human experience like pain and suffering, Largeman wages a battle against his own apathy, leaving his medications behind in an attempt to feel again.

One would be hard-pressed to find another all-around achievement quite like “Garden State” this year. Braff’s screenplay (written in the weeks before he began work on “Scrubs” as J.D.) is imbued with warmth, tragic comedy and emotional resonance that echoes another recent tale of self-discovery, Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.”

Behind the camera Braff’s direction is confident and expert; his arresting visual style and focus on the ridiculous are not unlike Wes Anderson’s (look for the silent Velcro and tell me you’re not reminded of the Dalmatian mice from “The Royal Tenenbaums”). Braff is likable as Largeman, and Natalie Portman’s tremendous, heartfelt performance here may even surpass her star-making child role in 1994’s “The Professional” in terms of depth and believability. Also worth mentioning is the film’s perfectly chosen soundtrack, one that will have viewers digging for the Shins’ and Nick Drake’s music collections for another listen.

“Garden State” is a celebration of the absurd, an examination of reasonless alienation, a sweet and gentle love story and perhaps even an Oscar contender (the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival before being picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight). Above all, it is a triumphant debut for Braff, who has demonstrated a capable filmmaking hand, a unique talent and great promise for the future. n

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