Home Video Hovel- Girlfriend, by David Bax
More often than not, when one finds oneself pondering, upon having viewed a film, what its maker was trying to say, it’s because something enigmatic has taken place. There has perhaps been some use of symbolism or metaphor that has left the auteur’s intention intriguingly unclear. Watching Justin Lerner’s Girlfriend, however, you may wind up asking the question not out of intellectual curiosity but out of bewilderment. Just what was he thinking, anyway?
Lerner, who also wrote the screenplay, tells the story of Evan (Evan Sneider), a man in his late teens or early twenties who has Down’s Syndrome and lives with his single mother (Amanda Plummer) in an unspecified small town. He works alongside his mom waiting and busing tables at the local diner. He spends his free time hanging around a young woman with whom he went to high school named Candy (Shannon Woodward) and her young son, Simon (Nate Krawshuk). Evan obviously has feelings for Candy but she’s still hung up on her ex-boyfriend and Simon’s father, a hard-drinking, loose cannon type played by Twilight’s Jackson Rathbone.
The actors whose names are listed above as well as numerous others are the film’s strongest element. Lerner displays a clear aptitude for eliciting performances that are not only solid but that fit the tone and mood he’s created for his film. While the supporting cast is more experienced, the brunt of the burden falls on the shoulders of Sneider, who carries it well.
Evan the actor, like Evan the character, has Down’s Syndrome. The movie is shamelessly exploitative of that fact. It’s not that Lerner exploits Sneider himself; at least not in any way that is visible on the screen. It’s that he exploits the viewer’s sympathies for him. Other characters aren’t really mean to Evan. There isn’t any name-calling to be found. But Lerner repeatedly dwells on the dissonance between Evan’s simple desire to be a part of the adult world and the refusal of others to accept him on those terms. It’s quite sad but it isn’t put to any use beyond its dolefulness. Instead of gaining an understanding of Evan’s inner life, we simply get melodrama and not very good melodrama at that.
What’s most reproachable is that Lerner doesn’t seem to want us to view Evan any differently than the other characters do. Late in the film, there is a collection of scenes in which Candy is afraid that something may have happened to her son. At this point, you may realize that this cheap ploy of endangering an innocent is merely another variation of what we’ve been witnessing the whole film in regards to Evan.
There is one scene that breaks the pattern. After having been somewhat cruelly, if inadvertently, allowed to believe that he has grown closer to Candy, Evan sees that she has once again returned to Rathbone’s Russ. Evan takes out his rage on the diner and his boss there, who has done nothing to deserve it. It’s a frightening display, well-acted by Sneider, and it’s the only time the character is allowed to be flawed, even dangerous. For once, he’s not being patronized.
Lerner’s handle on atmosphere – thick without ever being oppressive – as well as the skilled contributions of editor Jeff Castelluccio keep things from being purely distasteful. Lerner also possesses a sharp eye for location. What he lacks, however, is any clear motive for making Girlfriend beyond tawdry and manipulative sentimentality.