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'Girlfriend' Review: Gem of an Indie Deserves Wider Audience

It’s rare that a movie can come along and sweep away viewers into its world without the benefit of major stars and a whirlwind of hype. But this weekend I was blessed with the opportunity to see an absolutely mesmerizing film that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Its name is “Girlfriend,” and before I get caught up in rapturously praising the film, I want to let our Los Angeles readers know that they have one shot to see the film in a theater and help give it a broader life. It screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Downtown Independent Theater, the same free-thinking venue that earlier this year earned my praises for having the guts to screen the amazing anti-North Korean documentary “The Red Chapel” for a week.

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In its own ways, “Girlfriend” is even more of a must-see, and I urge anyone who appreciates great acting and writing in the vein of William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor’s darkly meaningful tales to go. It’s a thoughtful, quiet film that builds slowly but surely to a compelling series of events that should leave viewers happy that their intelligence was respected like so few films bother to do, as well as a uniquely satisfying conclusion that will leave you seeing the world in a different way.

While it tells its own very personal, compelling and unpredictable tale, it bears a resemblance to another great film that came out of nowhere back in 1996: Billy Bob Thornton’s masterpiece, “Sling Blade.” Like that film, “Girlfriend” centers on a mentally challenged man named Evan in a small rural town who suddenly has big decisions to make with even bigger consequences hanging in the balance.

But while Thornton was a relatively unknown character actor who drew critics and audiences in with a stunning performance pretending to be mentally challenged, “Girlfriend” stars a man named Evan Sneider, who actually lives with the condition of Downs Syndrome. His performance here is a stunner, because he not only holds his own against an excellent cast, but alternates perfectly between moments of subtle sadness and explosive emotion in a way that would make most so-called normal actors jealous.

The plot is deceptively simple at first. Evan lives with his single mother, who works as a dishwasher in a middle-of-nowhere dive and watches over Evan as he takes food out to the customers. Evan went to high school with the area’s “normal” kids years ago, and has started to realize that his life is in danger of being stuck in a perpetual rut because of his mental condition.

He keeps a list of friends he calls daily to check on their own humdrum lives, hoping to hear about their happiness at least. But his heart is set on what he believed was the most beautiful girl in his high school, a woman named Candy who now is a single mother who parties too hard and is caught between a fling with a married man and the abusive and jealous ex-boyfriend named Russ who fathered her child.

When Evan’s mother suddenly dies, he’s left utterly alone in the world and suddenly notices that the relationships of the townspeople around him are just as sordid as the ones he watched on TV soap operas with his mom. The movie mostly hints at these mixed-up lives, rather than graphically dwelling on them. But when Evan learns that Candy is about to be evicted from her home because of Russ’ refusal to pay her rent as promised, he secretly leaves the money she needs, taking it out of a large stash that his guilty brother has left for him to buy food and care for himself.

That decision to give Candy money is Evan’s desperate attempt to be her “man” and attempt to win her over as his girlfriend. Yet that seemingly pure-hearted decision is more complicated than it at first appears, and winds up setting off a whole chain of consequences between Evan, Candy and Russ that no one will see coming.

Aside from being a perfect gem of a film that deserves to be seen and admired by a large audience, “Girlfriend” is important in another major way. In an age where those with Downs Syndrome are being overlooked more and more, this film shows through Sneider’s performance that they are indeed capable of great things when given a chance.

Of course, most people with Downs don’t wind up starring in a movie and like any group of “normal” people, most probably don’t even care to try. However, films like “Girlfriend” and “Sling Blade” and their Emmy-winning TV predecessor “Life Goes On” show that they are more complex and human than we often realize, that they shouldn’t be shoved to the side and forgotten, and that they are often capable of even more profound displays of love than the rest of us.

Again, writer-director Justin Lerner takes his time to tell its story, but when it all unfolds, this film is magic. Relative unknown Shannon Woodward is also excellent as Candy, while Jackson Rathbone – one of the “Twilight” crew of young actors – shows that he’s got a lot more going on than might be expected of a heartthrob through the fact he’s not only great as Russ but he helped produce the film and with his band 100 Monkeys provides the subtly unsettling yet beautiful score.

If you’re in LA and want to see a great film, head downtown Wednesday night. “Girlfriend” just finished a two-week, largely sold-out run in New York City’s Film Forum theater and if it goes well Wednesday, it’ll land at least a full week and from there hopefully get a bigger shot at viewers nationwide.

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