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Girlfriend -- Film Review

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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 whom he has 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 cafe. 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 toward former classmate Candy (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 because of a lack of payments by ex-husband Russ (Jackson Rathbone of the "Twilight" films).

Evan decides to give Candy $1,000 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 becomes heated.

Writer-director Lerner does not overdo 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
Production: Wayne/Lauren Film Co.
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, 94 minutes
Sales: Paradigm