Set in rural Massachusetts, Justin Lerner’s directorial debut is a tale of small-town desperation and the pain and confusion of love. It plays out in an idyllic setting populated by fundamentally decent people driven to extremes by the recession and struggling with moral quandaries.
The central character is Evan, a young man with Down Syndrome who lives with his mother (Amanda Plummer) on the outskirts of a small town. They work together in a battered local eatery but Evan’s idling behaviour at work is compromising their mutual welfare. He is also besotted by his high school crush Candy (the impressive Shannon Woodward), a single mother who is fighting off her abusive ex-boyfriend Russ (Jackson Rathbone of the Twilight series) and the constant threat of eviction.
When Evan unexpectedly comes into a very large sum of money, he finds a way to woo Candy and in desperation, she anguishly accepts his innocent romantic advances to stave off the landlord. This puts Evan in the way of hazard from an enraged Russ and pushes him into a world of deceit where his innate compassion is sorely tested.
Lerner’s nuanced direction, the sombre lighting and the pace have echoes of Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage although perhaps this film does not have the same subtlety and sadness. There is, however, a Terence Malick-like feel for nature in many scenes, not least on Evan's daily walk to work along a winding esker in the middle of a beautiful woodland area. The ending is not wholly convincing but Girlfriend is a compelling small-town drama with a great central performance from Sneider (a childhood friend of the director), a young man who can only stand by bewildered and mostly mute as he becomes the manipulated innocent of the piece.
Girlfriend is on at The Lighthouse in Dublin and on volta.ie