For a film that touts itself as the first North American movie starring an actor with Down’s syndrome (what about Crispin Glover’s What Is It?), Girlfriend is surprisingly backward not only in the story that entangles its main character, but also in its characterization of women. If it takes any steps forward by fearlessly casting an actor with Down’s, it takes so many steps backward by presenting the object of his desire as a tart—a sensitive single mother whose panacea to boy trouble is sex. Never mind the pleasant fall colors of Quyen Tran’s cinematography, the freshness of seeing an actor with Down’s on screen, and the brief moments when the film felt like it might take off into something that could challenge the viewer’s notions of the mentally handicapped, Girlfriend is doomed by a script riddled with bad ideas.
It’s not easy being hard on a small film that seems to have its heart in the right place. Director Justin Lerner entrusts his old high school buddy, Evan Sneider, with the lead role of Evan, but I’m not convinced that Girlfriend would be the same movie without someone with Down’s. Lerner seems to be taking a politically correct approach by claiming the film just happens to star Sneider, and further, that it’s in no way a “message movie”; in other words, it wants to be progressive by not seeming like it is. The problem is that Girlfriend clearly wouldn’t be the same movie with a non-challenged person leading it: The characters, both as written and acted, wouldn’t make the same decisions, or treat and react, however subtly, to Sneider the way they do here if he were played by someone who didn’t have Down’s.
Girlfriend doesn’t present us with anything life-affirming, challenging, or expectation-beating about a lead character with Down’s. It’s quite the opposite: The film at every turn wants us to feel increasingly worse for Evan. It holds no punches in making him seem like the confused, unreliable, and, however sweet, hopeless character that the media has, for the most part, been good at sanctifying or, more likely, just ignoring. It starts in the shallow end of the pity pool, with an opening scene featuring Evan courteously calling a list of uninterested friends to check up on them and ends drowning in an ocean of tears with the pity-fuck of a lifetime.
The way the story has Evan get a “girlfriend” isn’t just far from ideal, but also depressing. Evan gives Candy (Shannon Woodward), a high school crush evicted from her home who’s clearly not interested in him, all of the money that was passed down to him from his recently deceased mother (Amanda Plummer). To Evan, this means that Candy is now his girlfriend, a relationship to which the mumble-mouthed hand-wringer seems to acquiesce. The Other Sister wasn’t right in its San Francisco-fied vision of cutesy, semi-autonomous urbanites who are mentally challenged, but with Girlfriend there’s really nothing Evan does that you can feel good about because he clearly can’t look out for his own best interests. It’s painfully clear that Candy will never be his girlfriend or pay back the money, yet she accepts it from him over several excruciating, you-want-to-cover-your-eyes scenes in which she offers some skin out of feelings of pity. Meanwhile, Candy’s ex-boyfriend, Russ (Jackson Rathbone), hangs around, it seems, just so he can also take advantage of Evan, using him to get information on Candy and misleadingly telling him she gets aroused by—spoilers herein—being smacked around. If that wasn’t despicable enough, Russ bottoms out when he takes Evan’s love money.
There’s a scene in which Lerner tries to play with our narrow-minded expectations of what Evan might be capable of doing wrong that indicates Lerner knows how loaded his choice of Sneider as an actor is. When it appears to Candy that Evan may have hurt her son Simon (because the boy’s missing and there’s blood on Evan’s hand), for a few minutes it seems possible that Evan committed a horrible crime, but then we’re shown a flashback which elucidates that Russ took the child while Evan, for no reason that I can gather other than to have blood on his hand, punches in a window in the back of the house that he and Simon were presumably going to enter, even though he had the keys. If Lerner had this much self-awareness to know the audience might believe Evan to be an unstable perpetrator, then it shows he understands the implications of casting Sneider in this role and all that he didn’t choose to challenge and redefine with such a choice, which I see as shortcomings. It would have been more difficult and interesting to write a script in which Evan’s advancement through the plot wasn’t directed by people’s pitying and manipulations, but instead through his own volition, or at least through circumstances that would complicate simple ideas about Down’s syndrome. With Girlfriend, we’re shown a story told through the lens of Murphy’s Law: Evan has the disadvantage of being developmentally challenged and, as one might assume, is eaten alive when forced to live on his own.