The bittersweet “Girlfriend” features Down syndrome actor Evan Sneider in its starring role, and he gives one of the better performances in writer-director Justin Lerner’s obviously well-intended and affectionately made first feature. Several narrative speed bumps keep the low-budget drama from being quite the smooth ride into the underemployed, whitebread-and-baloney America in which it’s set. Still, interest in young Sneider should draw a certain aud, albeit to a fairly dour story with a fairly predictable denouement. Hannover House picked up rights after Toronto.
Sneider plays Evan, who works with his beleaguered mother Celeste (Amanda Plummer) in a local eatery where the management barely tolerates him, especially when he disappears at lunch to stare at Candy (Shannon Woodward), a former classmate with whom he’s been in love since high school. Evan’s place in the community is clearly tenuous. But Sneider and Plummer, on their own, are wonderful together, and Plummer is quite brilliant at evoking, in just a few scenes, Celeste’s combination of maternal affection, instinct for headlong survival and pure rage at the universe for what an accident of birth has done to her life. Unfortunately for everyone, Celeste dies in her sleep one night, and Evan is suddenly on his own.
At Celeste’s funeral, a relative hands Evan about $15,000 in fresh cash, in advance of the settling of his mother’s will (the wrappers on the money should read “Bank of Guilt”). But why would anyone hand that much cash to a boy with Down syndrome? The only answer seems to be: to help Lerner to get us to the next chapter.
With her lank hair, calf-length boots and cutoff jean shorts, Candy is the perfect personification of trouble; she’s also in a financial hole. Her ex-boyfriend, Russ (Jackson Rathbone), the father of her young son, isn’t paying support, she’s barely working, and her landlord is evicting her. Evan knows this, and leaves $1,000 on her porch; she thinks it’s from Russ (it’s not clear why) and pays the landlord. When she finds out the money was from Evan, who would really, really like to sleep with her, she feels bad — for a moment. And then she lets the moment pass.
Cash is the engine of “Girlfriend,” but given that its origins here are so shaky, the rest of the movie is on uncertain footing. The sexual question raised by Evan is intriguing, but with the exception of Evan, “Girlfriend” is populated by dislikable characters (the triangular subplot concerning Russ, Candy and her married boyfriend, played by Jerad Anderson, isn’t much more than cliche).
D.p. Quyen Tran does nice work on the Red camera, giving the pic a look that’s appropriate to its milieu.