In the opening moments of first time director Justin Lerner’s sublime film Girlfriend, we meet Evan (Evan Sneider) with his back turned to us, sitting on a chair, randomly calling his friends from high school.  From their exasperated voices, we can tell our protagonist, who has Down Syndrome, is a slight irritant to their existence.  But Evan keeps calling, eager for connection, even if the exchange is one-sided. One of his conversations is with Candy (Raising Hope’s Shannon Woodward), a single mom who, for all intents and purposes, is the love of his life.

Evan’s one true friend is his loving and devoted mother (Amanda Plummer).  After a day spent working together at a local cafe, they walk home, watch a nighttime soap, and Evan’s mom sings her son to sleep.  But the simple day turns to tragedy.  When morning comes, she is dead, and Evan must fend for himself.

Candy is facing eviction and desperate for money.  Her deadbeat ex Russ (Twilight’s Jackson Rathbone) isn’t helping her one bit, and when Evan comes into money of his own, he throws Candy the life preserver she desperately needs.  All Evan wants is a girlfriend, and since he holds the cash Candy acquiesces.  When Russ discovers Candy’s deal, things get a touch complicated.

One of the many strengths of Girlfriend lies in Lerner’s desire not to judge his characters, as each person in this triangle is filled with complexities.  Is Candy just using Evan or does she truly love him?  Will Evan lash out after he uncovers a deception?  In one of the film’s more impressive sequences, a seeming confrontation between Russ and Evan during a game of horseshoes turns into something completely unexpected.

Although Plummer, Woodward, and Rathbone deliver solid and inspired performances, it is Sneider’s remarkable work that is Girlfriend’s crowning achievement.  Sneider hooks us into Evan from the get go, and under Lerner’s sure-handed direction, Girlfriend offers up a layered, uncompromising story of a man who wants (in his words), a “love affair.”

I enjoy my share of high profile summer blockbusters, but when September rolls around, most fade into my cinematic rear-view.  Weeks after viewing Girlfriend, its story plays in my head like a cherished song.  Sometimes life will surprise you.  And until Girlfriend came along, I forgot movies, in its truest and purest form, hold a similar power.

Girlfriend is now playing at New York’s Quad Cinema.

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