It’s not often that I can honestly say that a movie strikes me as completely original, but that is true of Justin Lerner’s new film “Girlfriend,” opening today in New York. It’s the sort of film I have trouble even assigning a genre as I watch it, and I strongly encourage you to get out and support this tiny indie right now while you can, and maybe we’ll see this one get a wider release, which it absolutely deserves.
I’m curious what the order of events was for this one. The lead in the movie, Evan Sneider, is a young man with Down’s Syndrome, and I’m curious if the role was written for them or if they went out and found Evan after writing the script. It’s one of those cases where the film wouldn’t exist without Evan, and I’m not sure this is the sort of thing you could even put together if you didn’t know you had the exact right person to play the part. Sneider’s work in the film is accomplished and moving and, again, original. I’m so used to the ingrained idea that any time you see someone with Down’s in a key role in a film, they’ll be portrayed a certain way, that when you see something like this that throws rules out the window, it’s enough to make the experience deeply unsetting.
Life in small towns can be frustrating because everyone knows everyone, and by the time you graduate high school, you’ve already got some idea how everyone’s going to pair off and how life is going to unfold. For Evan, the future seems to consist of working and living with his mother Celeste (Amanda Plummer) and silently pining for Candy (Shannon Woodward), a single mother who lives nearby and who went to school with him. When Celeste passes away unexpectedly, Evan is left to fend for himself, and he decides that he wants Candy to be his girlfriend. How he sets out to make that happen, and the results of that effort, makes up the meat of the film, and there is a very real and unnerving tension that builds over the course of the film. Since there’s no movie I can compare this to, there’s no easy model to assume it will follow, and so each new complication lands with real impact.
Jackson Rathbone, of “Twilight” infamy, plays Russ, a local guy who may or may not be the father of Candy’s child, and he’s good here, making the character more than just the local asshole. Woodward, who has a featured role on the sitcom “Raising Hope,” plays Candy as a bruised little piece of fruit, well aware of the effect her body has on men but unable to deal with the complications that go with that. As she becomes aware of Evan’s desire for her, she’s uncomfortable, but she’s also trapped. She needs money, Evan has money, and he wants to give it to her. In exchange, all he wants is the right to call himself her boyfriend. There is a protective aspect to his understanding of the word that defines his actions towards her, and for a while, it seems like that’s enough for Evan.
It’s not, though. And once sex enters the equation, things get complicated. And dark. And complicated.
I’m not familiar with any of Lerner’s short film work, but he’s got a real voice, and the very loose, natural style of the filmmaking is aided greatly by Quyen Tran’s cinematography. The film is well-observed, so natural that it feels stolen, not intentionally created. It’s daring, but it never trades on easy shock. There were definitely ways to make this same film and get it really wrong, versions that tip over into sleaze or exploitation, and when you’re dealing with someone who really has Down’s, you walk that fine line. Evan’s work here is made more impressive because we see things from him here that Hollywood would never show us, moments of emotional release that are so naked and uncomfortable that they almost caused an involuntary reaction in me. I wasn’t scared watching “Girlfriend,” but I was frequently worried, and my anxiety for Evan and his situation just kept getting more and more pronounced as the movie unfolded. Even when those last moments finally roll around, it feels like we’ve just reached a certain marker in Evan’s life and development. It’s not an ending… it’s just one more step in what will no doubt be a lifetime of challenges.
“Girlfriend” is a very small film, but I hope it finds some traction during its run in NY and that it gets a shot at a wider release. If nothing else, write the title down now and keep your eyes peeled for when it hits home video. It is an affecting and special film, and Justin Lerner emerges from it as a name to remember.