is the first full-length film from writer/director Justin Lerner. I first met him and reviewed his impressive short The Replacement Child
at the 2008 Santa Barbara Film Festival, so I was eagerly awaiting his first feature. It's an auspicious debut for this talented young director and it far exceeded my expectations.
The film stars Evan Sneider (The Replacement Child
), Shannon Woodward (The Haunting of Molly Hartley
), Jackson Rathbone (The Twilight Saga
), and Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction
Evan Sneider plays Evan, a young man with Down's Syndrome who longs for a girlfriend and the kind of rich life he believes he's always been entitled to. He never sees himself as a victim or as someone with an affliction, in need of pity or special treatment. Evan has a big heart and just wants someone to share it with besides his doting mother Celeste (Amanda Plummer). She lives for him and he lives for her. The object of his affection is Candy (Shannon Woodward), who still harbors feelings for her abusive ex-boyfriend Russ (Jackson Rathbone) as she searches for someone to provide for her young son.
Unexpected circumstances send Evan down an unimaginable road, one which keeps the viewer twisting and turning, never knowing whether his next encounter will provide comfort or danger. Empathy for him plants the seeds of discomfort and the ensuing suspense builds throughout the film.
truly has the sparse look and gritty feel of the "sweet little American indie" that I search for. Natural lighting is used where possible, and flashy visual effects are kept to a minimum. The viewer simply observes as the story unfolds. Quyen Tran's skillful cinematography takes full advantage of the film's claustrophobic settings by shooting through windows and doorways -- the technique known as frame within a frame -- rather than crowding the characters. To provide depth, Lerner and Tran devised a plan whereby each actor would be filmed a certain way -- Evan with closeups, Rathbone with a long lens -- and it's strikingly effective in its elegance.
The use of long takes without dialogue is one of the most powerful elements of this film. Periods of silence can often say more than words on a script as the viewer is forced to create the conversation in his own head. Actors who can communicate through facial expressions and simple gestures don't need lines to have an impact on the audience. It's one of the most impactful and dramatic techniques used in Girlfriend
and left me with a sense of wonder.
If you could hear a gem it would have the poignant music scored by lead actor Rathbone's band 100 Monkeys. The members of the band -- Rathbone, Jerad Anderson, M. Lawrence Abrams, Ben Johnson, and Ben Graupner -- scored and wrote original songs for the film. The bond between the writers and the project is apparent -- Rathbone stars and serves as co-producer, Anderson also acts and produces -- and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
It's always hard to single anyone out in such a brilliant ensemble cast but this is clearly Evan Sneider's film. It was written for him and with much love, and it shows. There's no discerning whether or not the plot is based on experiences he's had in real life. Far from being exploitative, Lerner's narrative never uses Evan's condition as a crutch (and neither does Evan). The story would work even if the character didn't have Down's Syndrome, and that's a testament to Lerner's knowledge of, and sensitivity about, the issue.
Shannon Woodward puts her heart and soul into the role of Candy. One can almost feel her emotional pain as she struggles to put food on the table and keep a roof over her son's head. The viewer is equally spiteful toward Russ, a first class villain who never shows a tender side except in deception. Rathbone's spiteful portrayal is in stark contrast to the goodness surrounding most of the characters. He is evil personified. Amanda Plummer's star turn as Evan's mother Celeste is simply heartwrenching. It's clear that Lerner gave his actors free reign to improvise. It works because they clearly have developed working relationships based on trust -- with the filmmaker as well as castmates. The unscripted dialogue sounds authentic because it's real.
This movie about (and starring) a young man with Down's Syndrome has some scenes which may make audiences uncomfortable but, to me, that's one of the definitions of true art -- it moves you, makes you happy, sad, angry -- it affects you emotionally on a deeply personal level. Girlfriend
can be hard to watch at times but is one of those films that deserves the label "important."