Garden State (2004)

If nothing else, I’m making a movie that I’ll enjoy.
— Zach Braff, “The Making of Garden State

Thought you were a big movie star and shit.
— Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), Garden State

As Natalie describes herself for the DVD commentary track of Garden State, she “merely acted” in Zach Braff’s first feature. But, as most anyone who’s seen the film has noted, her Samantha is its crucial, seductive, convincing pulse. Portman brings to this sad, strange, vibrant girl her own remarkable, brilliant energy; she doesn’t “merely” do anything.

Braff and Portman’s sweet, chatty commentary is one of two for the DVD; the other, more focused on basic logistics, features Braff, director of photography Lawrence Sher, editor Myron Kerstein, and production designer Judy Becker (“Remember, a deer ran by!” enthuses Braff while watching one gray day shot); other extras include 16 deleted scenes and outtakes. For their conversation, Portman asks questions, Braff explains his thinking, they remember a few funny moments and characters, including their inventive craft services guy. Their easy rapport (joking about her very expensive, hugely high profile Star Wars work, noting “messed up” continuities, loving the work by extras) echoes the low budget aesthetic and charming tone of the film.

Written by Braff, Garden State begins as his Andrew “Large” Largeman, a struggling Hollywood actor and waiter, returns from L.A. to small town New Jersey to attend his mother’s funeral. A congenial but terrifically damaged 26-year-old, Large now has to deal with several items of baggage, including a difficult relationship with his uptight psychiatrist father, Gideon (Ian Holm), who raised his son on meds (Lithium, Paxil, Zoloft) and incessant therapy, stemming from an accident Large suffered when he was nine. “As far back as I can remember,” he sighs, “I’ve been medicated.”

Garden State reveals the details of his grief and this accident gradually. En route, Large re-engages with his past, including his childhood friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard, who describes his part as “the metaphorical sheriff of the town”), now digging graves and not quite resenting his stuck-ness. Unlike Large, who worries about everything, Mark tends to sit around at home with his monumentally patient and AA member mom Carol (Jean Smart), annoying her with his resounding lack of ambition, dope-smoking, and outspoken disapproval of her boyfriend, a former classmate of his named Tim (Jim Parson), who now works at a medieval times sort of restaurant (as a knight) and speaks Klingon.

Large’s early rummaging through his history ranges from a tense first interview with his father (who sits behind a desk to question him, as Large remains framed in the office doorway, rebelling by saying, “I’m okay with being unimpressive, I sleep better”) to an encounter with school friend Kenny (Michael Weston), now a cop (“People really listen to you, I mean, they have to!”) to an all-night party where Large agrees to do drugs he’s not used to, passes out, and wakes with “BALLS” magic-markered on his forehead. And in fact, for all his concerns about his own lack of professional and emotional progress, he’s actually doing fine. The occasion of the funeral only brings his painful family history to whatever surface it is they’re pretending that day. And so, the son ends up pleasing the father by visiting with another doctor, Dr. Cohen (Ron Liebman).

The appointment itself is good for stating the obvious (“You need to find a psychiatrist who isn’t your father”), but the waiting room provides the location for Large’s turning point. In the waiting room, he meets the amazing Sam (Natalie Portman). Not only is she a lovely girl with an active sense of humor, she also impresses him with the music selection on her headphones: “It’ll change your life for sure,” she promises. (And she’s right. It’s the Shins, just one of several similar choices on the film’s soundtrack, including Thievery Corporation, Nick Drake, even a Simon & Garfunkel track, in case you missed that the movie is revisiting central themes from The Graduate.)

He offers her a ride home on his borrowed-from-home motorcycle, sidecar attached (Sam resists: “Sidecars are for bitches. Anyone who rides in your sidecar is automatically your bitch”). While Sam is something of a standard plot device — the quirky girl who shows the quirky hero just how great it is to be quirky — Portman is enchanting in the part, deflecting attention away from her wearisome function. Sam’s relationship with her mother Olivia (Ann Dowd) appears to be healthy if appealingly strange: they share their cluttered home with Dobermans, hamsters, and a “kind of” adopted brother, Titembay (Ato Essandoh), now studying criminal justice at Rutgers. Everyone loves one another unconditionally, making the family a positive model for the warmth-deprived Large.

Sam has her own problems, of course, primarily epilepsy. (Thankfully, the film doesn’t belabor this point, only uses it to connect her with Large.) Sam induces his healing: “Life hurts,” she observes, “But it’s sorta all we have.” Embarrassed by her mother’s doting (she proudly shows Large a video of Sam’s high school ice-skating, in an alligator costume), Sam does her best to make Large comfortable but also make him aware of his own judgments. For his part, Large worries that he’s behind on regular life experiences, confessing, “There’s a handful of normal kid things that I kind of missed.” She assesses rightly, “You feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist.”

This concept — that “home” is nonexistent but also organizes memories, hopes, and desires — is the film’s most elegant, but it’s illustrated variously. At times, the point is made clunkily (Method Man shows up for a brief scene, where he takes Large and his friends through a sort of lowdown peep show at a hotel where he works as a bellboy) and sweetly (worried that Sam lies regularly, Large asks, “So how can people know what’s real?” whereupon she smiles, leans back a little, and says, “I always feel bad afterwards and admit them when they’re lies”). The more successful images include a visit with a mysterious but also pleasantly mundane couple who are measuring an “ultimate abyss,” and thus living at the bottom of a gorge in an ark-like abode. Here Large, Sam, and Mark find a way to see through the diurnal fog, into bits of hope.