The indie comedy Garden State takes the official nickname of New Jersey as its title – which makes sense, since Zach Braff’s toothily winsome coming-of-age story is set in the suburbs of that great underdog of a state. But there’s something of the Edenic, lowercase meaning that the writer-director-star is after, too, something gummy that gets at nostalgia for the garden state of childhood – however less-than-perfect that childhood actually was. Braff, best known as Dr. John ”J.D.” Dorian on the NBC sitcom ”Scrubs,” suggests that even if you can’t go home again, the great thing about the U.S. of A. is that you can at least stop by your folks’ house for an extended postgraduate adolescence. And whether or not one believes this theory (I prefer the rarer promise of postgraduate American adulthood as a plot device, myself), it’s to Braff’s credit as a first-time filmmaker with a suburban-laughing-boy soul that his story is as warm and unforced as it is.
Certainly ”Garden State” is a very American specimen of debut indie form, its loose, goof-about scenes of comic melancholy reinforced with the glue of quirkiness over cracks in the narrative development. In the case of Andrew ”Large” Largeman (Braff), an aspiring actor relocated to Los Angeles, it’s the death of his mother that brings the 26-year-old boy-man back east to the iconic N.J. suburban averageness Braff himself knew as a kid. Large lives small, tranquilized by drugs prescribed for him since childhood by his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm, taking a Jersey Turnpike detour to play a Jewish shrink). But something about the prodigal’s return triggers Large’s desire to feel. For one thing, he meets a spunky sprite of a local girl (Natalie Portman) who matches him cute for cute. For another, he hooks up with old neighborhood friends living cozy lives of grungy underachievement (led by Peter Sarsgaard in a great, sleepy-eyed performance as a perpetually stoned grave digger).
And thus, via nonnarcotic growth and big hugs, Large finds a kind of paradise in N.J., while strong efforts from a jovial cast (including cameos by Tony-winning actor Denis O’Hare and theater director George C. Wolfe) help Braff find a way to say ”Hi” to the folks back home.