What a wonderful surprise "Garden State" is, from an unexpected source: Zach Braff, star of the sitcom "Scrubs," who's the film's writer, director and star.

Who would have thought that Braff, best known as the bumbling Dr. J.D. Dorian on the NBC comedy, would produce a film of such warmth and wit, subtlety and sweetness. It's all the more remarkable when you consider that this is the first film he's made, and he's only 29 years old.

Braff plays Andrew Largeman, an almost-famous TV actor living in Los Angeles who returns home to New Jersey after nine years to bury his mother.

Behind the camera, he uses striking minimalism to introduce us to the character - and to his state of mind - with an overhead shot of him lying flat on his back in his sparse, all-white bedroom, listening to his father (Ian Holm) tell him matter-of-factly on his answering machine that his mother has drowned.

Once he returns to his suburban hometown, he runs into friends he hasn't seen in years, who boisterously greet him by his nickname, Large. One is a former stoner turned overzealous cop, who raves about the benefits of his job: "If I get shot, I'm like, rich."

Another, Mark (a convincingly sleazy Peter Sarsgaard), makes a living by digging (and robbing) graves at the same cemetery where Large's mother is being buried, and spends his free time doing bong hits. Mark drags Large to a bash at the home of another childhood friend, who invented silent Velcro and is now living large himself.

This is something Braff really nails - the sensation of returning home after being away for a while and awkwardly reuniting with the people who never left. He realizes sadly that he's at a point we all reach: when the place you grew up is no longer your home, just a place that looks familiar and holds some of your stuff.

This probably sounds a lot like "The Graduate," and it does bear some resemblance (though Braff isn't exactly Dustin Hoffman just yet, or Mike Nichols for that matter). Large, like Benjamin Braddock, is stoic and only slightly amused by the eccentrics buzzing around him, including his Aunt Sylvia, who makes him a button-down shirt in the same bold, leafy-green print that lines the walls in the renovated hall bathroom.

Braff reveals slowly why Large was in such a muted state, even before his mother died. His father, a psychiatrist, has kept him medicated for most of his life for reasons that become clear as the film progresses. Only when he comes back to New Jersey - and leaves his prescription drugs in Los Angeles - does he learn to connect with people again, or at least one person in particular.

Natalie Portman plays Sam, a perky, self-professed compulsive liar who meets Large in a doctor's office waiting room and becomes his impromptu sidekick over the few days he's in town. Even though they're completely different people, they hit it off instantly, and their banter is so quick and easy, you'd swear you're eavesdropping on two people falling in love.

Portman is effervescent in a way we haven't seen her in years, and it's a joy to watch her radiate the kind of energy and personality she could never show under the elaborate headgear and stilted writing she's endured as Senator Amidala in the "Star Wars" prequels.

It doesn't take long for Large and Sam to change each other's lives, which sounds like corny romantic comedy fodder. But Braff strikes just the right tone all the time, and takes the story in places that get unpredictably weird, but never unbelievably so. The result is charming and funny, and sometimes disarmingly poignant.

While Braff's first offering is slightly autobiographical - he's said that some events and pieces of dialogue came from his own life - it's hard not to walk out of "Garden State" and feel as if the seeds have been planted for an extraordinary career, both behind and in front of the camera.

"Garden State"

Rated R for language, drug use and a scene of sexuality

Starring:Zach Braff, Natalie Portman

Directed by: Zach Braff

Length: One hour 55 minutes

Short take: This ensemble dramatic film is the story of a young man who returns back home for his mother's funeral after being estranged from his family for a decade.

Rating: Four stars (out of four)

Movie trivia: What was the original title for "Garden State?"



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