GARDEN STATE: Andrew "Large" Largeman (Zach Braff of TV's SCRUBS) is returning home to New Jersey for the first time in nine years to attend his mother's funeral. A struggling actor in Los Angeles, he's been living under clouds of medication prescribed by his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm). After drifting through the funeral with the same emotional numbness he's felt for years, he reconnects with old friends Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), a gravedigger, and Albert (Denis O'Hare), a millionaire who invented noiseless Velcro. In a doctor's office, he meets ebullient Sam (Natalie Portman), an epileptic whose lust for life inspires Andrew to feel things that his medication long denied him. Over the course of four days, he develops feelings for Sam he didn't know he was capable of, and faces up to the resentment his father holds toward him about an accident that happened long ago.
Writer, director, and star Zach Braff makes his debut feature with this off-kilter, unusually smart, self-assured coming-of-age film. GARDEN STATE has a knack for sharp-edged humor, character quirks, and finding lovely imagery within the mundanity of the suburbs. These things combined are abundant evidence to indicate that Braff's filmmaking future is filled with limitless promise.
STEALING BEAUTY: When 19-year-old Lucy Harmon (Liv Tyler) arrives in Tuscany, wondering about her mother (a recent suicide) and still nursing a crush on Niccolo, the local playboy she met on a visit four years earlier, everyone sits up and takes notice--especially director Bernardo Bertolucci, who trains his camera on the ingenue with understandable enthusiasm. The Graysons, who own the artists' colony and villa where Lucy's mother once wrote poetry, take the young girl in, and their guests enjoy the infusion of youth. Perhaps most deeply affected is Alex Parrish (Jeremy Irons), a terminally ill writer who finds Lucy charming and vital. Before such attentions, Lucy's interest in Niccolo (who turns out to be a jerk) quickly fades, replaced by an unexpected mystery regarding the identity of her father and a possible new love. And in a further attempt to understand her mother, Lucy writes light little poems as well. (Bertolucci has her words appear on the screen as she scribbles.) In fact, everything seems light, lush, and lovely in Tuscany, which provides a gorgeous setting for the gifted ensemble to play out their intrigues.
THIRTEEN: THIRTEEN is Catherine Hardwicke's explosive portrait of teenage girls at their very worst. Mean, manipulative, conniving, and utterly out of control, these skinny, sexy, drug-addicted, 13-year-old time bombs are nothing short of terrifying. Hardwicke's movie is brilliant in its ability to portray this phenomenon, which comes off as very real. The skillful photography from cinematographer Elliot Davis communicates the most complicated themes of the film: insecurity, confusion, wanting to be liked and accepted, and feeling like it's time to grow up fast. In an early scene, protagonist Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), a shy girl and good student, approaches Evie (Nikki Reed), the school's ultra-popular bad girl, and the two size up each other's clothing, jewelry, hair, shoes, socks, and decide to go on a shopping spree. From there Tracy spirals downward, copying Evie's every move in an aggressive game of daring each other to take increasingly dangerous risks--stealing, getting piercings, experimenting with sex, drinking and taking drugs, and much more. All the while Tracy's mom (Holly Hunter), a bohemian ex-alcoholic trying to be open-minded and supportive of her daughter's rebellion, slowly loses her authority and her ability to cope with these volatile teens. A booming, excellent soundtrack punctuates the hyper, desperate, manic mood of the girls' behavior, and catalyzes the adrenaline rush that is THIRTEEN.