Monday, July 16, 2012

"Girlfriend", by Justin Lerner, offers an innovation in casting; director's feature builds on his short films

The filmmaker name "Justin Lerner" rings a bell.  I can't quite place it from my own past.
I received (from Strand) a screener for his first feature, “Girlfriend”, with DVD to be released Aug. 7, 2012.
The film depicts the evolution of a friendship between a young man with Down’s Syndrome and a single mother in a small town in Massachusetts (Wayland).   What is remarkable is that Lerner cast a former high school classmate, Evan Sneider, who actually has Down’s for the part.
Lerner could not write the exact words for the script for Evan’s part. Instead, Evan somewhat believed the story and spoke in his natural manner, which is humble, direct, and compassionate.  Usually his actions seem “right”; it is the expectations of “normal” society that stand out in relief.

When Evan’s mother dies, she leaves him an inheritance in the form of cash in a box.  (Curiously, there is a similar scene and concept in the recent Hollywood film “People Like Us” (July 6, 2012). Evan tries to help neighbor single mom Candy (Shannon Woodward), by dumping cash gifts in her home.  But Candy’s problems are bigger than what Evan can comprehend.  They include an unforgiving landlord, and a very jealous ex-boyfriend Russ (Jackson Rathbone), who then tries to manipulate Evan.

Evan wants to help her just out of his own nature. He doesn't question who was personally "responsible" for her poverty and for a now fatherless son.  But I think most of the rest of us would.

Complications come when Evan awakes to what relationships are perhaps all about, and soon he expects “something” in return.  As Dr. Oz would say, he wants her to “love him back.”  She must become his "girlfriend".  

The DVD has three shorts about making the film, the music score by “100 Monkeys” (no relation to “12 Monkeys”), and a BBC interview.  Lerner insists that his project is pure storytelling and would work with a character with various other possible issues. My reaction to this is complex.  I was considered physically “behind” when I was growing up (was teased) and a little bit autistic; so what should be expected of me (in terms of performing in a “normal” way) was seen as a moral issue.

I must say that I personally would resent anyone's imposing a "relationship" on me, however grateful I needed to be in practice.
The film (94 min) is shot in full 2.35:1 format and uses fall scenery effectively and fills the screen with many two-character shots.

The film is an official selection of the Toronto Film Festival, and appeared in Gotham, Woods Hole, and Mill Valley film festivals. 

Official site from Strand is here

Lerner has four other short films on Vimeo on his own site. (None of them were on the sample DVD.)

These films demonstrate other aspects of Lerner’s interest in people’s needs for relationships and connections.

The Replacement Child”  (2007, 25 min, also 2.35:1) shows an 18 year old Todd Turnbull (Travis Quentin Young) returning to his hillbilly home after a year in reform school for hitting his stepfather. He is taunted about religious faith and a policeman even tests his temper. But when he finds his best friend dying and the faith-healing parents refusing to have the boy treated, he has to take measures into his own hands, again. The surprise ending explains the title.  Evan Sneider appears here as Todd’s “boss” when he gets his job back in a fast-food joint. This film is the closest in style to "Girlfriend" and makes a good companion piece. 

Maggie’s Not Here” (2006, 20 min), shows Maggie (Alisha Seaton) working in a college library.  She loves Richard (Michael Kass), who has a dissertation and is the more obviously “good looking”, but has to deal with the jealousy and physicality of an older man Luke (Wesley Stiller), as well as her own pain during culmination of any relationship.  The rivals have at least one physical confrontation (a common thread on Lerner’s films).

Echostop” (2005, 12 min) presents a woman Anna (Hope Taylor) who faces the permanent loss of her boyfriend (Jona Newhall) – really permanent – when she leaves her home for the day.

Solo” (2004, 3 min) has Roy (Geoffrey Gould) playing a game of air hockey on an LA rooftop ("Vertigo" anyone?), , and needing a playmate (Jason Cole).  Again, a confrontation ensues. 

Picture: Mine, northern MA, July 2011. 

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