Zach Braff rightfully observed that there were few intelligent, realistic films addressed to his generation, so he attempted one. This directorial debut, which he also wrote and stars in, follows alter-ego Andrew Largeman as he returns home to suburban New Jersey to attend his mother's funeral. A struggling LA actor, he left town years before and has been medicated on lithium and various other drugs since he was 9 (as an experiment, returns home without them).

Between avoiding a reconciliation with his father (an underused Ian Holm) and apathetically hanging out with his townie friends (most notably Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), now a gravedigger), he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), an eccentric, talkative young woman who immediately befriends him (and kept reminding me of Kate Winslet from ETERNAL SUNSHINE..., only not as extreme.)

Even without his meds, Largeman floats through his hometown as a passive observer, his disposition in check with the film's gently quirky, occasionally surreal humor. Sam is obviously the catalyst that gradually awakens him, but to Braff's credit, the film isn't always that simplistic or schematic. Details about Largeman's past surface credibly and thoughtfully, and the script takes a few unique, unforeseen turns. In its best moments, GARDEN STATE revives/emulates the socially aware spirit of New Hollywood films of the late '60s / early '70s. Sarsgaard gives a nicely muted performance and I think this is the first time I've ever appreciated Portman: she nearly makes an annoying, difficult character likable.

Still, Braff wants to be idiosyncratic and personable while reaching the widest audience possible. There are some deftly written scenes (like Largeman and Sam's conversation that occurs in a bathtub), but also others that point towards an unfortunate, strained happy ending. This is obviously a heartfelt project for Braff: I admire the humaneness with which he draws this portrait, especially when it observes rather than speaks for a generation (which happens to be mine.) Worth seeing, but at times it could've used a director with a lighter, more experienced touch.