There is a distinction between a movie and a film, as the words themselves attest. “Movie” ends in the twangy “ie” sound that gives the words “tacky” and “gaudy” their edge. The “lm” combination in the word “film” is smooth and phonetically pleasing, an intelligent and artistic arrangement of consecutive consonants.
Zach Braff’s “Garden State” is the latter, a rare jewel of the silver screen. Braff (star of the sitcom “Scrubs”) wrote and directed this film about a struggling young actor returning home for his mother’s funeral. While in town, he decides to take a vacation from the anti-depressants that have been making him numb since childhood. He bumps into high-school friends still stuck in New Jersey (his witty slacker friend Mark asserts, “I’m okay with being unimpressive. I sleep better.”) and wanders around suburbia with a charged indifference. He speaks in a monotone that is not bored, but contemplative and confused in a way that suggests sophistication instead of stupidity.
Even viewers turned off by Braff’s unflagging intensity and the dominant and sometimes stifling haze it casts will be won over by Natalie Portman. She plays an innocent hometown girl, androgenously named Sam, whom he meets in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. The two learn that everybody has scars but in a way that feels less like a didactic maxim and more like real life. They fall in love without the usual Hollywood fireworks.
Although I’ve heard “Garden State” labeled a romantic comedy, the nearly derogatory tag is hardly fitting. It manages to evade neat categorization. There is no fluff here. In tight spots where it narrowly escapes being saccharin, Graff’s dark humor, Mark’s witty sarcasm and Sam’s charm save the meaningful from being cloying and rescue the film from the simplistic romantic comedy label.
Certain filmmaking choices indicate that Braff’s talent and maturity lie not only in his writing but also in his cinematic creativity. In the opening scene, he puts a subtle twist on the potentially cliché dream sequence. Instead of waking Largeman from his plane-crash nightmare with a shrill alarm clock, the movie smoothly transitions to reality by having him reach toward the plane’s air-conditioning fixture to answer a randomly placed telephone, which is actually ringing next to his bed. Braff authentically captures the illogic of dream-logic. One particularly artistic shot frames Sam’s tap-dancing body silhouetted against the flickering of a burning fireplace in a large, empty room. Although visually pleasing, the scene is further enhanced by Remy Zero’s haunting “Fair,” one of many modern masterpieces that make the soundtrack corroborate Braff’s fine artistic taste.
It’s hard to say whether “Garden State” will be timeless. It timidly promises to be for our generation what “On the Road” was to the Beats. It expresses this era’s simultaneous repulsion and attraction to the shallowness of everyday life and the desultory confusion of college grads waiting for life to begin. Braff wrote the screenplay by weaving together stories of his friends and family. The result is a piece of art that does more than imitate life, it captures life.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.