TIFF FILM FESTIVAL: Justin Lerner’s ‘Girlfriend’

Shannon Woodward and Evan Snider in a difficult romance in Justin Lerner’s ‘Girlfriend’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Justin Lerner’s “Girlfriend” claims to be the first U.S. feature film to star a person with Down syndrome, namely Evan Sneider who plays a young man with a major crush on a single mom he’s coveted since high school.

The particular difficulties that face someone in his situation are explored with sensitivity and genuine dramatic tension with a central performance that will please audiences seeking observant and heartfelt drama. It should do well in selected theatrical markets and thrive on DVD.

Evan, also the character’s name in the film, is industrious and gregarious, joining his Mom (Amanda Plummer) on staff at a local café. When she dies suddenly, his other relatives elect to trust his ability to look after himself with a very large amount of insurance cash.

Evan has long harbored romantic inclinations towards a former classmate named Candy, played by Shannon Woodward (TV’s “The Riches” and this season’s Fox comedy “Raising Hope”). He likes to drop by her house unannounced and discovers that she is about to be evicted from her home due to lack of payments by ex-husband Russ (Jackson Rathbone, Jasper in “The Twilight Saga” films).

The young man decides to give her $1000 to help her out and as her ex-husband becomes more abusive, he gives her even more. Candy swears the money is just a loan, but Evan is clear that he just wants to give it to her.

His gift, however, does come with a price, and that is for her to become his girlfriend. With Candy involved with a married man on top of her hassles with Russ, the situation will become heated.

Writer-director Lerner does not over-do the melodrama and he derives considerable suspense from the notion that Evan’s behavior could become extreme. Sneider handles scenes of tenderness, mystery and anger with much skill and the director shrewdly lets the young actor’s expressive eyes carry key scenes.

Woodward matches him playing an easily tempted woman who discovers within herself a degree of grace she might not have suspected was there. It requires considerable delicacy and Woodward nails it. Rathbone, too, gives his jealous lover a measure of subtlety that adds depth to his character.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Sales: Paradigm; Production companies: Wayne/Lauren Film Company; Cast: Shannon Woodward, Jackson Rathbone, Amanda Plummer, Evan Sneider; Director, screenwriter, producer: Justin Lerner; Producers: Jerad Anderson, Kristina Lauren Anderson, Shaun O’Banion; Executive producer: Jason Oliver; Director of photography: Quyen Tran; Production designers: Seth Chatfield, Harrison Lees; Music: 100 Monkeys; Costume designer: June Suepunpuck; Editor: Jeff Castellucio; No rating, running time 94 minutes.

This review appears in The Hollywood Reporter

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