Zach Braff -- ''Scrubs'' star, minor mope icon, and now writer-director -- is not one to break down bawling in public. But every man-child has his limits. Braff, 29, found his last January, when he came to the Sundance Film Festival with ''Garden State,'' a rainwashed New Jersey quirkfest with foundations in ''The Graduate'' and ''Harold and Maude.'' As the screening concluded and Braff took the stage (to enormous applause), ''someone asked if my parents were in the audience,'' says the filmmaker. ''I asked them to stand up. And when they did...I just started crying.''
Can you blame the guy? Imagine, for a moment, all those surreal ''cinematic'' journal entries you've kept since puberty, brought to life on screen, then sold to not one but two Big Indie studios, Fox Searchlight and Miramax (who split domestic and international distribution, respectively). ''I've collected stories ever since high school, anecdotes of suburbia,'' says Braff. ''[The movie]doesn't really follow any three-act structure. Which is cool, because I would have failed a screenwriting class if I'd turned it in.'' No matter. ''It's the essence of indie filmmaking,'' enthuses Steve Gilula, Searchlight's president of distribution. ''It didn't come through a studio committee system. He put a lot of things on the screen that we'd never seen before.''
Such as: a grave-robbing hipster, a leg-humping Seeing Eye dog (a tough bit of casting, Braff admits), and a giant ark teetering on the edge of a strip-mined abyss. Amid these oddball set pieces, ''Garden State'' (see review on page 59) follows Andrew ''Large'' Largeman, a starving actor suffering from near-catatonic malaise in L.A. When his mother dies, he lopes Jerseyward to face some old demons, chief among them his icy psychiatrist father (Ian Holm). Minus the gothic touches, Large is Braff three years ago: ''Out of work, depressed, and homesick for Jersey. Now that I've got a job out there, I don't abhor L.A. as much as I used to.''
The ''job'' he's referring to is ''Scrubs,'' NBC's acclaimed hospital sitcom. Braff, upon landing the role, impulsively quit waiting tables. ''Then I found out we weren't going to be starting ''Scrubs'' for four months, and I sort of panicked. I didn't have any money, and I was scared I'd quit too early. But then I figured it was a sign to stop procrastinating and really sit down and write the script.''
It wasn't his first foray into filmmaking. In film school at Northwestern, Braff won a grant and made a 25-minute short about an overpopulated future. The flick didn't pass Sundance muster, but it did help him fill out ''Garden State'' with top-drawer talent like Holm, Peter Sarsgaard (who plays Large's ne'er-do-well Jersey pal), and Natalie Portman (as his nutty, intuitive squeeze). But the real selling point was the script. ''I think it's pretty obvious about me as an actress that when I'm bored, I do a really horrible job,'' the ''Star Wars'' princess says candidly. ''It's sort of shitty of me. But we all know that when you're obsessed with your work, you do your best.'' Portman says Braff was basically looking for ''Maude Jr.'' -- an analogue to the life-loving Holocaust survivor (played by Oscar winner Ruth Gordon) in one of Braff's favorite films, ''Harold and Maude.'' ''She has the same effect on this character who's numb to the world.''