Zach Braff, Director
By Jeanne Doherty
Some movies take you out of yourself, blessed escapes that transport you instantly to Italy, outer space, a lifestyle of the rich and famous. And then there are those rare films that snap you in to your most private self with a jolt of startled recognition. Garden State did that for me. I had a mildly strange youth, broken up with several bouts of severe depression. There were definitely moments where I felt deeply perplexed about why I was even alive, which were further exacerbated by some poor personal choices. Then one day, and it really was just one day, I looked around and the air was sweet and the sky was beautiful and I just decided that this was it. This was my life, it was the only one I was going to get, and I was--damn it all--going to enjoy every minute of it if I could. Since then, I have been sad, but I have never again felt that peculiar gray blankness of my teen years.
The reason I mention this is that Garden State is about that exact kind of moment. Zach Braff has managed to visually articulate an epiphany of sorts in a way that is unique to him, but echoes feelings that I actually experienced. Every detail of the film is a delightful surprise, each image is full of strange and beautiful details that I didn't anticipate and could only marvel at, but its core feels completely real and completely recognizable. It is funny without having to reach for jokes, instead using what is genuine about its characters and setting to create humor. It is gorgeous, but not artificial. The camera frames things that are naturally lovely--the greenery of New Jersey, Natalie Portman's smile--in ways that show them off to their best advantage, but doesn’t overly embellish upon what is already there. The film is strange the way people are strange, showing everyone's quirks and weaknesses, but not commenting upon or exaggerating them for the sake of being odd.
Garden State, for all its many gifts, is getting decidedly tepid reviews almost everywhere. After seeing it twice, and loving everything about it, I have decided that critics are responding negatively to the very vulnerability that makes it great. Raw, earnest emotion is often an uncomfortable thing to watch, even as it is the source of most of the pleasure afforded us. Garden State lays its heart on its proverbial sleeve, where many people might wish that it had retreated in to sarcasm or "coolness." It is enough to make most people squirm a bit (even me). The film lets you eavesdrop upon things that you are accustomed to think of as deeply private. It is a beautiful thing to watch, but not always a comfortable one. Don't let that stop you!